By SARAH DiGREGORIO
Published: January 17, 2012
JULIE SAHNI vividly remembers the first time she had to eat with utensils. Ms. Sahni, a New York-based cookbook author and cooking teacher, grew up in India eating the traditional way, with her right hand. Then, in college, she won a dance competition that would take her to Europe. How, she wondered, would she eat?
The answer was a three-day immersion course in Western dining etiquette, which progressed from soup (don’t let the spoon clatter on the bowl) to green beans (spear them without sending them into your neighbor’s lap) and finally a slippery hard-boiled egg. Ms. Sahni, 66, mastered the knife and fork, but she has never really liked them.
“Eating with the hands evokes great emotion,” she said. “It kindles something very warm and gentle and caressing. Using a fork is unthinkable in traditional Indian eating. It is almost like a weapon.”
Eating with the hands is common in many areas of the world, including parts of Asia and much of Africa and the Middle East. But until recently, you would have been hard-pressed to find many restaurants in the United States — especially those with $20 or $30 entrees — where digging in manually was encouraged. Now, several high-profile chefs are asking diners to get their hands dirty, in the belief that it heightens the sensual connection to food and softens the formality of fine dining.
When the chef Roy Choi surveys the busy dining room of A-Frame, his restaurant in Culver City, Calif., only one thing can dampen his mood: cutlery. “I see people cutting kalbi ribs like a steak, and it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard,” he said.
A-Frame, whose eclectic menu Mr. Choi says was inspired by Hawaiian cuisine, is utensils optional. Though a basket of silverware is provided at each table, when the grilled pork chop or market salad arrives, servers advise customers that they’ll be missing out if they pick up a fork. “Then there are a lot of questions like ‘Am I really supposed to?’ and ‘Is there something else I need?’ ” Mr. Choi said. “But the moment we answer ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ people usually just go for it.”
He had thought he might have to provide finger bowls, as many restaurants do in other countries, but hands-on eating proved to be much neater than expected. “You eat with conviction and passion when using your hands,” Mr. Choi said. “I hope that people let their guard down and throw out some of the rules we have regarding etiquette and connect like animals.”
Etiquette, as a matter of fact, is central to most traditions of hand-to-mouth eating; the artfulness and ritual of the practice is part of what people love about it. Hand-washing often comes first. In Muslim communities, a prayer of thanks comes next. Only then can one reach in — usually with just the right hand — to eat.
And dining with the hands is not necessarily easy: in some regions, including parts of India, it is most polite to use your thumb, pointer and middle finger, and to let only the first two joints of those fingers touch the food.
Details differ from place to place, but often rice or flatbread is used to ferry food to the mouth — think of Indian roti and naan, Ethiopian injera or Middle Eastern pita. Central and Southern Africans pound root vegetables or corn into starchy mashes like fufu or ugali; you’re meant to pull off a bite-size ball and use it as an edible scoop.
Ms. Sahni refuses to eat Indian food with a knife and fork, even in the most formal South Asian restaurants in New York. “I don’t care if I’m all dressed up, if everyone else is eating with a knife and fork, if the wine pairing is $80,” she said. “It’s essential.”
When she reaches in with her right hand, others are often happy to follow suit. But it wasn’t always that way. She remembers an Indian restaurant in Manhattan that, in the 1970s, had unofficial sections for Indians and non-Indians. She says the owners explained that Indians didn’t want non-Indians to see them eating with their hands and that Westerners didn’t want to see it, either.
Today, the writer Amitav Ghosh says he doesn’t go to Indian restaurants in London and New York because eating with hands is discouraged. “They regard this essential aspect of the cuisine with a kind of embarrassment,” he said.
In the United States, most run-of-the-mill restaurants, with the exception of Ethiopian spots, do not forbid the practice, but do not encourage it, either.
One Manhattan restaurant that does encourage it is Tulsi, Hemant Mathur’s upscale Indian outpost in Midtown. Upon delivering dishes like goat curry with roti or stewed chickpeas with puffy bread, servers tell patrons they are best eaten with the hands.
At the New York restaurants Fatty Crab and Fatty ’Cue, the chef, Zakary Pelaccio, provides silverware but hopes that the nature of his signature dishes, like chili crab and barbecue, will inspire diners to use their hands. Convinced that the sense of touch is integral to good eating, he eats just about everything except soup with his hands. He even named his new cookbook after the practice: “Eat With Your Hands,” to be released in April. “I eat with my hands today, and not just because it would be a serious shame to let utensils slow me down,” Mr. Pelaccio writes. “It has become a sort of philosophy of mine — a metaphor for life.”
In Los Angeles, Bistronomics, a long-running pop-up restaurant inside Breadbar, presented a no-utensils menu last spring. The $65 prix fixe, created by the chefs Jet Tila and Alex Ageneau, included dishes like salt cod croquettes with zucchini purée and grilled lamb chops with carrot confit. The chefs plan another dinner like it this spring.
“It creates more of a social atmosphere,” said Mr. Tila, who grew up in Hollywood. “It brings us back to our childhood, and it seems to lighten the mood in the room.”
A glimmer of this idea has even made it to the White House. When the New York chef Marcus Samuelsson prepared the state dinner for India’s prime minister in 2009, he included a bread course (unusual at such events) of naan and corn bread with dips. “What could be better than for people who don’t know each other, from all over the world, to break bread together?” he said.
In fact, Mr. Samuelsson expects that as American fine dining evolves, flatware may become more and more optional. “I think there will be a four-star restaurant where knives and forks are used, but not for every course,” he said. “ ‘Great’ does not have to mean one narrative, the European narrative.”