The Great Debate: Cutlery or Hands?


It is taken for granted in a large part of the world that using cutlery is the more ‘civilised’ approach to eating. Most Europeans, save the occasional burger or burrito escapade, wouldn’t dream of working through a stew or a steak with their bare hands.

Viewed objectively, this is a strange phenomenon considering the relatively recent appearance of cutlery in the history of humankind.

Admittedly, fine dining would be quite different if you had to take care your starched cuffs didn’t drag in the gravy as you dug into dinner but, let’s be honest, our concept of ‘fine dining’ isn’t exactly natural to begin with.

So, why all the cutlery?

Knives have been used as hunting and cutting utensils for thousands of years and, until well into the Middle Ages, the common European table etiquette involved only a knife, bread and hands.

Spoons are almost as old, originally made from shells or wood for scooping and serving food.

Eating with hands was the norm unless the meal required a cutting or scooping action. The real game changer came with forks at the table.

roman cutlery
Roman era cutlery. Not a fork in sight.

Two pronged forks were in common usage in many cultures to pick up hot food from the pan or pot. In the Middle East from the 7th century, the upper classes started advocating a ‘cleaner’ way of eating with this pronged instrument and over the following centuries, the custom started to filter towards Europe. Initially, the idea of using a prong when you had perfectly good hands with which to pick up food was viewed as laughable and even un-Godly.

Nonetheless, elite diners began to view hands as unclean and gradually the fork took its place at the table as late as the 18th and 19th centuries. The final step was when Europeans started rounding the pointed end of their knives to separate the dining knife from the more violent pocket knife, concreting the need for a ‘spearing’ utensil.

Fun fact: Americans eat by transferring the fork to the right hand after cutting while Europeans keep it in the left. Why? In the US, the aforementioned knives with a rounded tip became common but, unlike in Europe, forks did not. This meant that American right-handed people would both cut with their right hand then transfer their spoon to that hand to eat.

Who continued to eat with hands?

Keeping the eating-with-hands tradition alive are mainly a variety of African, Arabic and Sub-Asian nations, despite their common dishes being of a rather liquidy nature.

And they have some valid reasons:

1) Your body loves hand-to-mouth

Despite what your parents told you, studies have shown that eating with hands is actually more hygienic. The first reason is that people wash their hands much more frequently if they are eating with them, and on top of that, any bacteria left on the fingers is generally good bacteria that helps your gut during digestion.

hands grain food
Make your body happy

Plus, Indians insist that spicy food is more tolerable when eaten with hands, backing up the theory that the sensitivity of fingers measures the heat and nature of the food to prepare your stomach. [1]

Hell yes, biology.

2) Ancient teachings worldwide demonstrate the importance of hands

Food is a delight to the senses. But which ones?

For millennia, food has been savoured by all five senses, including touch.

In Hindu and Chinese cultures, the essential life energy, named ‘Prana’ and ‘Chi’ respectively (both literally mean ‘breath’), flows through everything, including food. To use cutlery is to break the natural connection of touch from farm to hand to stomach.

hands india food
Feel the force

Additionally, for Hindus, each finger represents a world element which, combined, bring the experience of the five senses and elements together when using hands to eat.

Have we forgotten the importance of touch in gastronomic enjoyment?

Not entirely. The experience of eating a pizza would be greatly hindered if you were required to use a knife and fork, a practice considered something close to blasphemy in the food world. Deep down we know we love eating with hands!

pizza with cutlery
What is this madness?

Is it time to leave behind our preconceptions about cutlery and hands? Perhaps the popularity of fast food will lead us in the direction of hand-held meals, boosting our spiritual and physical health and keeping us foodies happy… as long as we learn to eat healthy food with our hands too!


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