You still eat with your hands-festival called 'the Tomatina' -The Lost Art of Grape Stomping

August 05, 2012

Devdutt Pattanaik
You still eat with your hands.” This is a comment (allegedly) made by Oprah Winfrey in her show on India, suggesting as if eating with hands is something primitive and undesirable. Such cultural insensitivity from a TV hostess renowned for her empathy! Why this disgust about eating with hands? Tribes in Africa eat with their hands. Tribes in Australia eat with their hands. Tribes in America eat with their hands. Greeks did not use cutlery. Romans did not use the fork and knife. And Jesus certainly broke bread with his hands.
Long before cutlery became fashionable in Europe, chopsticks were used in China. The oldest ones, made of bronze, have been dated to 1000 BC. In the Orient, it is considered uncivilised to serve a guest food that has to be cut or torn with a knife or speared by a fork.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik
In Europe, during the Middle Ages, food was eaten on hardened stale bread called trenchers. Knives were used not because they were necessary but because it was impressive. Men impressed ladies by cutting slices of meat, spearing it and offering it to them. In the 16th century, Catherine de Medici took the first fork (or the two-pronged ‘split spoon’ as it was called) from Italy to France as part of her dowry. Everybody laughed but eventually everyone mimicked her, as eating with it became a sign of snobbery and aristocracy.
It is interesting that the rise of use of cutlery can be mapped to rise of European imperialism, American colonisation and African slavery. Eating by hand came to be associated with natives, labourers and servants.
But think about it, at formal dinners the Indian Army and the Indian Government expects all its officers and diplomats to use cutlery. That is proper. The option of eating with the hand does not exist. A colonial hangover? So why chastise Oprah?

The Lost Art of Grape Stomping

wine stomping, grapes, feet, foot art, traditional wine processUNTOUCHED BY HAND
One can understand that in cold countries the hands would be covered with gloves and so eating using an instrument would have made immense sense. This need led to the innovation of the fork in Europe and the chopstick in China. But in warm countries like South Asia and Middle East, eating by hand always made immense sense. One can argue that hands are dirty and even unhygienic. But that argument does not hold if there is water, soap and towels available to wash and wipe hands. In many parts of North India, while roti is eaten by hand, people prefer using the spoon while eating rice. This must have something to with having grains sticking on the fingers, which is much more while eating rice and much less while eating bread.
In Vedic texts, food is a goddess and fingers are the midget sages known as Valakhilyas. The sages carry the goddess to our mouths so that we sustain ourselves. In Jyotisha, the five fingers are associated with the five elements— earth (little finger), water (ring finger), air (middle finger), ether (index finger) and fire (thumb). Thus when we eat by hand, the five elements get symbolically connected with the food. But such symbolism and speculations do not matter as one gets more modern and civilised, I guess.
The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

Food in Nepal – It’s polite to eat with your hands!

Chris (Nepal Volunteer from USA) & friends eating with hands in Nepal.
Remember your mother saying, “get your fingers off that food!” Or something similar? Most westerners grow up being told NOT to eat with their hands, but when you travel to Nepal, get ready for some finger-licking Nepali Thali! It’s actually polite to eat with your hands in Nepal, and it’s what the locals do. However, you will garner much respect if you decline the “champcha” (spoon you will be offered with every meal) and scoop up that rice and curry with your fingers and just eat it.
There’s a bit of a technique involved, and you may have to practice a bit, but basically, you scoop with your 4 fingers, bring the food up to your mouth and push it into your mouth with your thumb.
There are a few other rules to remember while eating.
1) Always wash your hands before and after eating.
2) Be sure your finger nails are trimmed very short.
3) NEVER eat or take food with your left hand.
4) Never eat off of someone else’s plate, or take food from another’s plate.
5) If offered water from a communal water jug, never let it touch your lips. Just tilt your head back and poor it in.
6) Don’t lean on your left hand (or let it touch the ground) while eating. If sitting on the ground, sit cross legged with your plate in front of you.
7) The host or waiter will always offer you more of each dish and put each item on your plate separately. So, if you don’t want anymore, let them know. In Nepal, it is impolite and actually bad luck to waste food.
8) There are still people of some Nepali castes who will not eat with others, including tourists, so depending on where you are (especially in remote regions like Dolpo) you may encounter this. Just accept that their beliefs are not the same, and enjoy your food.
9) Get a Nepali phrase book, or a Lonely Planet Guide for Nepal and memorize the “food words” — this will come in very handy because you gotta eat!
10) Be wary of outdoor food vendors (like on the streets of Kathmandu), drinking un-purified water (especially while trekking in Nepal), or anything you even suspect might unsanitary. Food borne illness is very common in Nepal with tourists.

The festival/party:

Surely the worlds' biggest food-fight: every year around 30,00 people descend on the Spanish town of Bunol (in the Valencia region of Spain) to throw more than 240,000 pounds of tomatoes at each other. 

The festival is started with a ham-on-a-stick contest where competitors raced up a pole to retrieve a smoked leg of ham. When the ham is cut down, people put on eye protection and cry for tomatoes as trucks dump the squishy produce onto the village streets. They then proceed to pelt each other with them until all have been used up.

The festival on the last Wednesday of August is called 'the Tomatina' and is basically a town-wide tomato fight. It is thought the tradition began in 1945 when a fight erupted among two young members of a carnival crowd. A vegetable stall was nearby in the town square and every started throwing tomatoes at each other. Exactly one year later, young people met at the square, but this time with their own tomatoes. Another food-fight started but was broken up by police. 
 Woodcut showing 12 people holding various human body parts carousing around an open bonfire where human body parts, suspended on a sling, are cooking.
Cannibalism, Brazil. Engraving by Theodor de Bry for Hans Staden's account of his 1557 captivit