Eating Burmese Food With Your Hands

In this excerpt from the book, we pick up an entry from our "Monastery Food" chapter. Following is a short excerpt from the section on eating with one's hands:
"The American monk refers to the Burmese habit of eating with one’s hands, and more elaboration may be helpful here. The deeper one gets in the rural countryside and the more comfortable one is with one’s friends, the more common it is to find this practice. One Burmese-American notes that 'food tastes different when it is eaten with no utensils. I think to experience life as a Burman, you should try at least once to eat as the locals do. At least in my family, there is a certain affection and almost ‘intimate’ satisfaction when eating with your hands.' Daw Sanda Wadi, an American nun, notes that some monks even believe that eating with your hands can be a form of medicine. She quoted another Burmese nun who felt that the fingers were so busy during the day counting rosary and reciting scripture that this wholesome energy could be brought directly to eating as well. The American nun also noted during the rains retreat that one of the senior monks ceremoniously shared the food from his alms bowl by thoroughly mixing it with his hand whilst chanting and then distributing it as a way to share the benefit of his meritorious alms round. Some have even suggested it aids the digestive process, with nerves on the fingertips preparing the stomach for the intake of food. Some Westerners who have gotten into this habit have described a deeper sense of intimacy with one’s hosts as well as the food, as utensils bring a foreign element into the eating process, and some feel use of one’s fingers requires greater mindfulness. Even Amitav Ghosh, an Indian whose family emigrated from Burma and who wrote the Burmese historical novel The Glass Palace, commented that he declines to go to Indian restaurants in London or New York where one is not allowed to eat with one’s hands. If you do partake in this local custom, two important cultural reminders to keep in mind are to never under any circumstances use your left hand, and that it is also inappropriate to lick your fingers. In fact, in many eating venues a small bowl of water will be placed in which one can dip one’s fingers to clean them."

Local lay supporters prepare food at a Danu monastery in Shan state during a festival