In India, we eat rice using our fingers. Generally in the West, a fork or spoon is used. I have tried eating rice with spoon but I don't feel satisfied with it.

We eat dry rice but we mix curry and vegetables with it and then eat it with our hands.

Is there a way to eat rice with your hands in front of Westerners such that it doesn't appear to be disgusting to them? By disgusting I mean that they shouldn't feel like vomiting or looking away to avoid me. Even though in India we eat with our fingers, many people eat such that their whole palm is covered with food. That indeed looks disgusting.

I cannot avoid hurting them by following different etiquette, but I certainly want to maintain a degree of cleanliness.

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    Have you tried eating with a spoon and then just waiting? This is based not on the utensil but biology and psychology. Satiety is a combination of both. – Johns-305 Oct 25 '16 at 12:20
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    It depends in part on where you are (as in regions, countries), as our UK-aholics have pointed out, some regions are used to Indians and their dining habits, but if you are in rural America you might find folks who will consider eating rice with the fingers to be dirty and disgusting. You will have to judge each setting by itself and decide which is more important, you pleasuring yourself by eating with your hands or being polite to the folks around you. – user13044 Oct 25 '16 at 13:33
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    Under no circumstances would I feel compelled to satisfy the nosiness of those not in my dining group. If the guy on the next table don't like the way I eat, that's their problem, not mine. Unless you're in a town with less than 100 people, you likely won't ever see them again anyway, so why waste effort to try to impress them? – Lie Ryan Oct 26 '16 at 8:02
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    @Gendarme - India has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world because of poor hygiene. We invented eating utensils for a reason, nothing about them is arbitrary. – Davor Oct 27 '16 at 11:54
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    The old saying When in Rome... is not exclusive to Rome; it is applicable to all countries. So yes, people will naturally be put off by seeing things which they are not used to. You can certainly try to continue your customs in public but don't be surprised if you find it difficult to make friends. – MonkeyZeus Oct 27 '16 at 20:40

13 Answers 13

up vote 32 down vote accepted

Who are you trying to eat in front of? There's no single answer here.

If it's strangers: there is no way. You must always respect local custom in order to meet the standards of etiquette local to your surroundings. Use a fork, spoon, or chopsticks (chopsticks are not local custom in the West but are seen as exotic rather than uncouth).

If it's business relationships or customers: use a fork. You could make relationships that allow you to eat with your fingers but it is not worth it; respect local norms and make your business relationships easier.

If it's friends, colleagues, or classmates: eat with your fingers and talk to them about Indian norms. They should respect your culture and, indeed, be interested in it. If they're not, stop wasting your time with them.

If it's a potential romantic partner: eat with a fork the first time then start doing it your way. You need to signal that you're capable of behaving in public but you should then relax into whatever makes you happy. If they can't deal with your cultural differences, avoid that relationship.

Do you have some kind of roti or some kind of flat bread that can go with the rice? People may be less edgy if they think of it as eating taco or burritos by hand.

It might come down to whom you're eating with. Westerners do eat BBQ ribs, fries, hamburgers with hands as well. Even those that do not might not be appalled if you use your fingers in a sufficiently dainty fashion.

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    This is actually the best "actual answer" here. – Fattie Oct 25 '16 at 14:34
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    Agree, this is straight to the point – motoDrizzt Oct 25 '16 at 14:35
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    Some people eat ribs with their fingers. As a "Westerner", I use a fork (or two) because I find using my fingers messy and disgusting. The difference with fries and hamburgers over "utensil-foods" such as rice is that these are dry finger foods and don't soil your hands. (Also, if you go to Finland, you might just find that some people there eat hamburgers with a fork and knife.) – user42547 Oct 26 '16 at 4:32
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    @FighterJet Neither fried chicken nor BBQ ribs are "dry" foods. I usually get my hands very messy when eating them. Doing so without utensils is considered perfectly ok in almost every setting here in Germany, though. - Eating burgers with fork and knife is a different matter: Its often the only viable method to not spill them everywhere and having to pick up the pieces with a fork, anyway... ;) – Alexander Kosubek Oct 26 '16 at 6:19
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    I have eaten in Brick Lane in London, and this is they way everyone was doing it. Tear a sort of spoon out of your bread and use that to shovel food. When it gets soft, eat it and try again. Is actually great fun. – RedSonja Oct 26 '16 at 13:49

A bit of open mindness will not kill you, the same open mindness you'd like to receive from other people who you think find your habits disgusting.

Follow me:

First and foremost, you can eat the way you want: when it comes to western culture, the only thing we generally do not like are noises, eating with the mouth wide open (included speaking with full mouth), and (excessively) dirtying the table. Eating rice with hands will be seen (mostly) as strange, not disgusting.

Second, context. Are you eating at a formal dinner with your colleagues and a client? Eat with the fork, as everybody else. Are you eating at the work's canteen? Eat the way you prefer and let other deal with their limits. And so on.

Third, respect and open mindness: you are worried other peoples find you disgusting for eating rice with hands, but at the same time you show the same "closed mind" (in a way, ok? I'm not trying to offend you) in wanting to eat rice with hands at all cost otherwise you will not feel satisfied; believe me, eating with a fork will not starve you as will not change food nutritional content.

Even more if you are eating at a foreign restaurant, e.g. at an italian restaurant rice is cooked and thought to be eatean with a fork. Respect local culture, open yourself to a new experience, and try to learn a different way to enjoy food.

So, in the end: feel free to do whatever fit you most, don't be afraid of other people judging you (their fault) but at the same time don't close yourself in your garden (your fault)

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    An excellent answer. I would reiterate though that, I believe the word "disgusting" was simply misused. (The OP is writing in a second language, for goodness sake.) I believe the OP just meant "socially jarring, unacceptable" not literally "disgusting". – Fattie Oct 25 '16 at 14:26
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    I love this answer. Frankly, anyone disgusted by the OP eating rice with his/her fingers needs to have kids. I've watched my 3 year old dip jellied cranberry sauce in ranch dressing and like it. In the end, any disgust is cultural, so maybe the disgusted people need to realize that their way isn't the only "right" way – psubsee2003 Oct 26 '16 at 0:48
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    when it comes to western culture (...) Eating rice with hands will be seen (mostly) as strange, not disgusting. Uhhh I'm pretty sure that eating rice with your hands will be seen as disgusting by most people from e.g. Spain. You can explain that you're from India etc. and they'll let you do your thing, but that doesn't mean it's not disgusting. EDIT: as seen in the comments to this answer for a very related question. – walen Oct 26 '16 at 7:30
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    When in Rome, do as the Romans do! – DoritoStyle Oct 26 '16 at 12:54
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    @Mawg I was about to write that. And (at least for Italians) I would also say "seeing someone eating pizza with pineapple on it". – Andrea Lazzarotto Oct 26 '16 at 22:48

The only realistic option is to eat somewhere where others won't see you: either in the privacy of your home or in a restaurant which offers private cabins. Otherwise you will always face people who find the practice off-putting.

If you're just a random tourist I wouldn't worry about it — no one is going to tell you off or expel you from the restaurant for eating with your hands, unless it's a super fancy establishment. If, on the other hand, you would like to behave like the locals — use the trusty fork and spoon.

Source: living in the West.

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    @AquariusTheGirl yes, it still looks like an impolite thing to do. – JonathanReez Oct 25 '16 at 12:20
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    It's the rice that's the problem. Westerns use their hands all the time to eat. If you use a bread such as Injera, it will not be as noticeable, if at all. – Johns-305 Oct 25 '16 at 12:23
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    @JoeBlow if it was a random person in a restaurant I'd be a bit surprised but won't give it a second thought. If it was an acquaintance of mine eating at the same table, I'd find the practice unpleasant and try to avoid eating with them in the future. So if OP is just a tourist she should feel free to eat however she pleases. If she wants to make local friends, I'd suggest sticking to the trusty fork and spoon. – JonathanReez Oct 25 '16 at 13:34
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    @motoDrizzt Are you trying to imply it's somehow racist to avoid people who behave in a certain way, if that's somehow related to their culture? In some countries farting during meals is appropriate, does this mean those people should be welcomed with open arms in any other country? – JonathanReez Oct 25 '16 at 14:01
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    Probably "disgusting" isn't the word, but I'd certainly consider it incredibly bad manners and would get people on other tables in a restaurant talking about among themselves. I realize that this isn't rational, but so it goes. – RemcoGerlich Oct 25 '16 at 14:33

If I as Westerner need to eat rice with my hand in front of other westerners, I would do the following things:

  • Wash my hands thoroughly. Cut my nails to minimum (Something under the nails is yucky).

  • Use rice which is so sticky that I can take it and hold it without something dropping down. (Dropping down is considered yucky). Use a kerchief on your lap...even if you are not dropping, it makes a better impression.

  • No sauce which is glistening (fat on the fingers is yucky) or dropping down.

  • All other parts of the dish are cut down in size so that I can hold them safely and grab them easily.

  • I hold the dish with thumb, forefinger and middlefinger down. Then I move the dish to the mouth, open my mouth as wide as absolutely necessary without risking dropping and eat it.

  • I have either a container with water and a kerchief or a wet kerchief. If my cheeks or the region over the mouth are covered (yucky), I wash my fingers in the container and clean them, after that I clean my face. I would also have a small mirror available to see if I have something on the face (or I have a companion and we both indicate if the other has something on the face).

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    Picking up the dish may be a suggested practice with German 'Westerners', but not with Midwestern US 'Westerners'. And the cleanliness of the fingernails (aside from dark dirt/debris easily visible from more than a meter away) and their length would have no impact on the perceptions and opinions of the eating style one way or another. But, having a container of water for cleaning the hands on the table next to the food would only be seen as a negative in the Midwestern US, and may be more nausea inducing that the eating style itself. But the mirror at the table would be remarkable and funny. – CWilson Oct 26 '16 at 21:33
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    @DCTLib Your grammar edit made the grammar worse. Other than 'are' being correct to 'All', you only changed the author's tone, or made the antecedent ambiguous. Sadly, we have all accidentally used the wrong verb conjugation in conjunction with 'All of <singular noun>' before, and I am empathetic to wanting to fix that. Regardless, that edit should be rolled back. – CWilson Oct 27 '16 at 14:05
  • @CWilson "All" is one of those difficult words to use correctly because it can be either a collective noun which always takes a plural verb or an adjective that describes how much (or many) of the noun(s) that it describes. In this case, it is an adjective, so the plural "are" correctly matches the plural "parts". – Jed Schaaf Oct 27 '16 at 17:00
  • @JedSchaaf You are right. That is embarrassing. I knew the correct answer, but gave the wrong reason why. You are completely right. I still stand by my conclusion, though. – CWilson Oct 27 '16 at 17:08
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    @CWilson I'm not discounting your experience, just surprised at the little differences between Canada and the US. – Myles Oct 27 '16 at 18:03

As I mentioned in a comment, it's the rice specifically that's the 'problem'. Unless it's Sushi Rice, eating rice with finders can be quite messy. This is what 'Westerners' would see as bad manners.

However, many cultures with Indian influence or similarities eat rice and other foods with their hands using essentially a food utensil such as Injera or Naan. This is perfectly acceptable though possibly a bit unusual if you are eating Mexican cuisine.

  • "Sushi rice" is just short-grain white rice and "sushi" vinegar (+optional condiments)... It can still be quite messy... – The Wandering Coder Oct 26 '16 at 0:53
  • Suchi rice is prepared specifically with high starch rich to make it sticky so it can be eaten in chunks, compared to more common long grain varieties. – Johns-305 Oct 26 '16 at 11:30
  • "with high starch rich" did you mean "high-starch rice"? Preparation of the rice usually sees the starchy powder washed off (before the rice is then cooked). Rice for this use is always short-grain, but can be either Japonica or California families of rice (other local variations may also be used). – The Wandering Coder Oct 26 '16 at 12:18
  • Yes, high starch rice. I know all about it, that's why I contrasted it with long grain rice. – Johns-305 Oct 26 '16 at 12:25
  • Fair enough. I still stand by my statement the it can still be quite messy though... – The Wandering Coder Oct 26 '16 at 12:38

You appear already to know an answer - to use eating implement(s); a spoon or fork.

Following the rules of etiquette, one must be prepared to sacrifice one's own cultural norms for the comfort/sensibility of those around you. Similarly, those around you who obey the same rules will afford you the same courtesy; they should not make you feel uncomfortable for deviating from their norms.

Who yields to whom is generally a matter of location - "When in Rome, do as the Romans do".

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    I agree- I was disappointed in all the foreigners visiting India who refused learn how to eat with their hands. Likewise, the irritation of spoons is something that will pass with time. – axsvl77 Oct 26 '16 at 14:13

It's important to recall here that we "westerners" wontedly eat loads of stuff with the hands: hotdogs, carrots - any kind of reasonably stiff food that holds together as a whole to some degree. So I would say that it's not the particular deed that some westerners find offputting, but rather the following two fears / neuroses that arise from seeing someone eat something that smears, or leaves some kind of residue on the hand:

  1. The thought of having to shake hands with someone or being touched by someone who has the sticky residue of rice on their hands. "My new / favorite suit will be ruined", "I hate that icky sticky feeling on my skin", "Oh no, my new couch will be tainted forever" and so forth are likely to be thoughts running through an onlooker's head at some level. This is mitigated by having a cloth at the table that one can very obviously wipe one's hands with whilst still sitting after a meal and then to excuse oneself to wash one's hands after one is done with the course in question;

  2. It is important to understand that we "westerners" think of our own immune systems as utterly incompetent and that we will be felled by some dreadful illness through any minor meeting with microbes. After they have listened to such phobias for a lifetime, this belief may not be altogether unfounded. So there is a contamination phobia here. This means that if you are sharing from a dish, some people are going to be yucked out if you serve yourself more from a dish with your hands that you have been eating with. So you'd probably need to excuse yourself to wash your hands before serving again. See the "Seinfeld" "Double Dipping" episode where Elaine is grossed out by George's putting his tidbit back into the communal sauce bowl after he has chewed on the former, for more insight into this neurosis.

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    I wouldn't just excuse yourself to wash your hands before serving again. Rather, I would use a spoon or other utensil to serve out of any communal dish. I would say the general etiquette in the US anyway is not to touch anybody else's food (outside of close family if everybody agrees it is ok), either using a serving utensil or being careful to only touch your own piece when taken from a communal dish. – Zach Lipton Oct 26 '16 at 3:36
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    Zach Lipton is correct - it is extremely rude to touch other people's food with your hands, even if you have made a very obvious show of washing them well and haven't yet used them for eating. If you grab a chip from a share plate, then any others you touch are now yours and you should move them to your plate immediately, without touching any others in the process. If you grab a handful of rice from a shared bowl, the entire bowl is now yours. – Scott Oct 26 '16 at 6:58

I have no idea how you specifically eat. I have even less idea how 'everyone' "In India" eats.

In Midwest US (not known for being cosmopolitan), where I live, nausea would be most likely triggered not by eating rice with the hands, but by higher than expected speed while with eating with the hands. Or licking the hands during or after eating. And, for some, food remaining on the face for longer than expected.

Therefore, "than expected" is the only problem here. I suggest trying to eat around young children a few times, and see at what point the attentive parents react. Take that average, and then err slightly on the more cautious side. The attentive parents will never have allowed their children to get to the 'make others nauseous' stage, and by taking the conservative average, you can be confident you are well within limits.

I can't speak for all 'Western' cultures, but I would think that, if the goal is to prevent nausea in onlookers, you should have a pretty easy time. Use many napkins often, and you shouldn't have to think about that goal again.

Though, I must say... this seems an odd goal to my Midwestern US sensibilities.

  • +1 - Your suggestion about watching when/why parents limit their children is awesome. :) – techie007 Oct 27 '16 at 13:56

The most polite thing to do is just eat with a fork or spoon and accept that making some compromises with the culture you are in is a normal part of human relations. This is the most socially 'safe' approach'.

Having said that politeness goes both ways you will probably find that with most people if you explain that you are used to eating rice with you fingers and would they mind if you did so everybody will be a lot more comfortable. Bear in in mind that westerners may not be used to seeing people eat 'wet' food with their fingers so if you just go on and do it they may be confused but if you explain why you are doing it most people will understand.

You may also find that if you are eating an Asian meal others will join in with eating with their fingers and if you explain it as being the 'authentic' way of eating that type of food they may be enthusiastic to try that way of eating.

Personally if I was in a foreign country I would follow the lead of the other people at my table and even ask for advice as to the best way to tackle it but I would also not be embarrassed to admit it if I was struggling to eat it in the proper local manner.

  • Best advice imo. Let me add that many people I know here in Germany, including myself, would not find it "yucky" (i.e., mildly disgusting); instead, we would find it (in varying degrees) lacking good manners, or uncivilized, or uncultured. Of course that is just our narrow-mindedness, our cultural bias. After all, eating habits are some of the strongest sources of identity, partly because eating together is a strong bonding ritual (with fellows and with strangers). A westerner who doesn't know how to use a fork is uneducated. This is probably similar to an Asian seeing us eat rice with a fork. – Peter A. Schneider Oct 28 '16 at 13:48

@Johns-305 is right, it's not the hand part that is the problem, but the rice.

I would say that it depends on the kind of meal you're having. If it's an indian meal, I would not see any problem as you know better than westerners how people who created that meal eat that meal (you could even teach something). Similarly, if it's a western meal, you should eat is as they do. This should be a good rule of thumb, but any deviation shouldn't be any big.

For instance pizza should apparently be eaten with your hands. Another example is in Ethiopian restaurants, at least in Paris, France, where everyone eats with its hands (including rice).

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    Note that the pizza link explicitly mentions he broke New York etiquette. Italians are much more likely to eat pizza with fork and knife than their hands, for example. But ultimately, food etiquette is quite regional and even more so subjective and situational. – Luaan Oct 26 '16 at 8:20
  • True, and when I say indian/westerner it's also a bit vague. – cjrj Oct 26 '16 at 9:07

Have you tried to "eat" the rice before it was cooked? In Europe you can expect that the cooked rice will behave on a plate that way. The rice here is usually not as sticky as rice for sushi, for example.

People here are usually very tolerant. Some people eat their pizza with bare hands, some use fork and knife. Some people bite the meat from the bones, some tear it on a plate, some use fork and knife to do so. Some people eat chips with bare hands, some use fork. Some people eat the burger with bare hands, some use fork and knife. Some people use sticks in asian restaurant, some use fork and knife.

Yes, some people find the unusual way odd or even disgusting, but one can expect that such people will find you disgusting because of [insert reason here] first. They doesn't deserve your effort at all.

If you can eat your food without excessive noise, spreading your food over whole table, floor, walls or ceiling it will be fine. Personally, I prefer using sticks in asian restaurant; but If someone doesn't know how to use them the fork and knife is The way how to eat there.

tl;dr
Try to eat rice prepared here and find the cleanest and most elegant way suitable for you.

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    -1 for stupid comment about skin-color. There was no reason at all to put that in your answer. You're making stupid assumptions. – Pieter B Oct 26 '16 at 10:09
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    @PieterB There are prejudicing people. Deal with it. – Crowley Oct 26 '16 at 10:17
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    If you come at my table and I serve you rice, I would be grossed out if you would eat it with your hands. So now I'm a racist? You see prejudice and racism everywhere. There was no need at all to play that card in this discussion. – Pieter B Oct 26 '16 at 10:21

I'm a Brit and I love rice. If practicable, I normally 'spoon' it with a fork held in my right hand, even in an expensive restaurant. If other Brits are offended, that's their problem. I probably wouldn't do it in front of the Queen, though, but that particular situation has never arisen. I have yet to master the skill of eating rice with chopsticks. I must eat out more.

  • Eating rice with chopsticks isn't really the standard way of eating rice. There's no standard way of eating rice - the most common ways are hands, spoon, fork and chopsticks. None of these is really dominant. And note that different rice warrants different treatment - eating dry rice with chopsticks can be quite frustrating, while properly sticky rice is as easy to eat with chopsticks as with a spoon. It's quite funny watching people in Thai restaurants try to eat the rice with chopsticks as if to blend with the culture - despite the fact that most Thais would use a spoon :) – Luaan Oct 26 '16 at 8:23
  • I was given a (china) spoon at my local Thai restaurant, for which I was very grateful. They did offer us chopsticks (perhaps for their own amusement), but we all declined. You do see Japanese people eating rice with chopsticks (in films) and I often wonder how they do it. Maybe they just use their hands in real life. – Mick Oct 26 '16 at 8:27
  • The rice you eat with chopsticks is very sticky, so it's no harder to eat with chopsticks than e.g. a small potato. The Japanese dining etiquette has a certain reputation, yes, but it has actually changed a lot over time - it's fine to eat rice with chopsticks, though in the past hands were a lot more popular. It's not like the Japanese aren't influenced by the Hollywoodization of their cultures :) Sushi is always eaten with your hands (so that you don't disturb the arrangement). And of course, the Japanese aren't the only people in the world eating rice :D – Luaan Oct 26 '16 at 8:51
  • The food of the Gods! I don't know why we bother with potatoes. – Mick Oct 26 '16 at 8:56

protected by RoflcoptrException Oct 26 '16 at 13:00

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