I love to eat with my hand. Not â€œhands,â€ since most people, I have observed, only ever eat with one hand, not both hands. At any rate, despite my views on folks chewing with their mouths open, a habit which I personally believe is less natural than eating with your mouth closed (though I have no scientific data to prove it), I do love to occasionally eat a pinoy meal with my right hand, sans utensils. A huge percentage of the worldâ€™s population probably eat with their hand or hands, what with most of India doing so, many in the Middle East, Indonesia and The Philippines, Africa and North America and Europe as well. Have you ever seen anyone at McDonaldâ€™s eating their Big Macs with a fork and knife??? We almost certainly ate with our hands before Magellan arrived, though we probably already had the equivalent of a spoon. Thatâ€™s why we call a fork â€œtenadorâ€ and a knife â€œcuchillo.â€ But in some dialects, we call a spoon a sandok, similar to the Malay word for spoon, sendokâ€¦ Even with the Spaniards around, I suspect less than 10% of the population of the archipelago had access to cutlery.
But as with many, many brilliant things in the food sphere in the Philippines, the recipes, traditions, foods, etc. are disappearing faster than we would like. And I suspect, for a certain strata of society, including many who have access to a computer and internet access and who read this blog on a regular basis, eating with oneâ€™s hands is becoming less and less common. Mrs. MM is one of those who is uncomfortable eating with her hand(s)â€¦she would probably rather consume significantly less calories than battle with a warm adobo and rice mash, not to mention stringy achara on the sideâ€¦ The Kid still raises her eyebrows at the practice, but doesnâ€™t eschew it altogether. I think I will reinstate monthly kamayan (hand eaten) meals at the beachâ€¦ So, just in case you havenâ€™t eaten with your hand(s) lately, or you are a new arrival in Manila and thought it silly to ask, here is the Hand Eating 101 tutorial a la Marketman.
First of all, eating with oneâ€™s hands in the province â€œBarrio Fiesta styleâ€ used to mean you were eating from on top of a piece of banana leaf (today, the majority are likely using a plastic plate). The seemingly perfect â€œplate,â€ the banana leaf is plentiful and cheap (particularly if you have banana trees growing in your backyard), a renewable resource, clean, hygienic, an attractive green color, smooth and non-porous. You can make the â€œplateâ€ buffet or dinner size with a minimum of fuss; though round shapes require the use of scissorsâ€¦ Unfortunately, it is rarely hand painted, glazed and fired in a kiln, and if maltreated, tears easily into strips. Worse, it has no rim or lip, so sauces can run and drip onto your lap if you are not careful. Also, it is ineffective when you want to fling a â€œplateâ€ across the room to make a crash and boom sound in a fit of frenzy a la the afternoon soap operasâ€¦
Next, the food served on these leaves is typically warm or tepid, not straight out of the kawali (pan) piping HOT. The reason for this is you can literally burn your fingertips on wickedly hot rice or oily food. Hmmm, perhaps this explains why many folks donâ€™t mind lukewarm or cold food in the Philippines. Soup is typically used to moisten oneâ€™s rice and some of the soup is added to the rice with the use of a spoon or by pouring a little bit out of a bowl directly onto the rice. This explains why soup is not typically a SEPARATE starter or course, but rather eaten simultaneously with oneâ€™s main course. With or without soup as the moisture regulator, eating with oneâ€™s hands is a balancing act of making sure each mouthful is the “right” mix of rice and viand, moisture and consistency. Perhaps this also explains our penchant for saucy foods, again as the moisture regulator when there is no soup on the menu. Eating on banana leaves in a restaurant but with stainless or pseudo silver utensils is really rather DOPEY, as knives and forks can shred the banana leaf. I consider this practice a MALL affectation and frankly, it is CHEESY, period. Use a plate rather than mixing the two styles of eating, harummphh. :)
Next, before eating, WASH your hands well. Ideally, you shouldnâ€™t have terribly long finger nails either. Eating with oneâ€™s hand can actually be MORE hygienic than eating with estero water washed stainless utensils or if the fork and spoon you use was handled by someone with dirty hands themselves. Take a small amount (spoonful equivalent) of rice and use your fingers to compact it into a mound on your plate. There are several views on whether you should mix viand with rice but I like to mash things togetherâ€¦ then pick up the mound with all five fingers, bring your hand close to your mouth and use your thumb to push the mound of food into your mouth. Do not put your fingers INTO your mouth. Actually, with practice, you realize that the motion is rather natural, fluid and not messy at all. Practice in front of a mirror if you are self-conscious. Silly collegiala giggles and squeamishness at this point is immature. Get over it.
A lot of Pinoy food lends itself to being eaten by hand. Most grilled foods are easy to manage. So are fried fish, dried fishes, etc. But the practice works less well with other dishes from around the globe. Can you imagine eating Spaghetti Bolognese with your hand? While eating a tira misu with one’s hand would be a challenge, a suman would be easy peasy. In some places like India, pieces of bread are used to wrap around foods or mop up soupy dishes like lentils. I asked several people in Manila if licking oneâ€™s fingers was appropriate at the end of the meal, and the general consensus was that it was not acceptable. Further, one must clean the banana leaf by herding all those stray grains of rice with oneâ€™s fingers into a final little pile and eating that too. I find there are several nice things about eating with oneâ€™s hand, you just seem that much closer to the food, you can feel and smell it before you taste it, you can regulate the contents of each mound with greater accuracy. Itâ€™s also nice not to hear the clash of steel on ceramic. Oh, and one final observation. I always wondered why so many people seem NOT to drink any water while they eat here. They save the water for lastâ€¦ I think I have finally figured that out. With their main eating hand all covered in rice and grease, holding a glass might be messy or difficult. Therefor they wait until after they wash their hands to then drink their water. Why they wouldnâ€™t drink with their other hand is still a mysteryâ€¦ If you have any wise tips for the budding hand eater, please leave a comment…