Navigating the use of a knife and a fork at the dinner table

If you are raised to eat with your hands, the use of cutlery can unleash both power and pain.

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A family meal in the home of the writer's parents [Photo courtesy of Ishay Govender-Ypma]

I cannot recall if she recited them or if I took mental notes, but when I left home at 17, I did so with my mother’s tips on how to survive in the world. Instructions on how to use a communal washing machine and remove stains from my shirt collars with a mixture of spirit vinegar and bicarbonate of soda; how to cook frugal meals in her ancient electric frying pan; which oil to use to keep my locks lustrous; and how to darn my socks when holes appeared in them. I packed a tennis ball for just this purpose.

It was 1997, seven years after the release of Nelson Mandela and three years after South Africa‘s first democratic elections. I was sitting in a university canteen, 563 kilometres (350 miles) from home, and I felt buoyed by a sense of optimism and elation.

After decades (centuries if you account for colonialism) of brutal oppression under apartheid‘s racial separatist regime, it finally felt like our nation’s ashy hopes would merge into a technicolour reality, where struggle veterans like Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada savoured freedom while walking among us. My parents had never imagined the day we would know what liberation felt like, although they had prayed for it fervently.

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The writer as a child, with her parents in apartheid South Africa [Photo courtesy: Ishay Govender-Ypma]

All around me was what the TV and radio commercials called the “New South Africa” – students from various racial backgrounds. In front of me was a yellowing plate of spaghetti Bolognese and some dull, catering-grade cutlery.

But in which hand should I hold each implement and to which side of the plate should I place them?

Navigating the knife and fork

I looked up and mimicked the young, sandy-blond man seated at the table across from me. He ate with the hunger and speed of a rugby prop due on the field in five, cutting the too-soft pasta and shovelling in mouthfuls with his fork. The knife remained in his right hand.

My left hand would need to get used to lifting and aiming, I thought. I was yet to learn the beginner’s trick – that ungovernable strands of spaghetti do well with the deft motion of a twirling fork cushioned against the curve of a spoon before you lift the oily, saucy bundle to your mouth.

I was, in fact, unaccustomed to using a knife and fork at all.

Up until that moment, my family, like many in the Global South, ate most meals with our hands. A spoon for soup, a fork for chicken salad or cake.

I had only been to restaurants a smattering of times, and those had mainly been for pizzas or burgers – the Western foods we found deliriously alluring. Once cut into manageable portions, all you needed for those were your hands and some gusto.

But, here I was, with no notes from my mother on how to navigate this new dining hurdle.

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Traditional Indian South African dishes served in the writer’s home [Photo courtesy: Ishay Govender-Ypma]

Eating in apartheid’s heartland

My relationship with hand or manual eating, as I have seen it called in some academic papers, is layered and complex.

The first in our immediate family to study full time, a scholarship took me to a university with a good reputation in Bloemfontein, smack in the heartland of apartheid.

The government officially enforced segregated living in 1951 under the Group Areas Act of 1950, separating people by archaic racial classifications, but Bloemfontein had codified this back in 1860. In a way, Ordinance 1 of 1860 was a precursor to apartheid’s white supremacist racial segregationist laws.

It did not matter how awkward or unmoored I felt at times, I had decided that a knife and fork were tiny obstacles in relation to the injustices I had known.


JBM Hertzog founded the National Party (the official architects of apartheid) in 1914, in the very city in which I had chosen to spend my formative adult years. It was in Bloemfontein, that – not so many years earlier – my forefathers had been required to have permits, handed out by white civil servants, simply to transit through the province (never being allowed to stay overnight).

Now, Mandela’s rainbow-nation promise underscored my decisions, emboldening a sense of belonging, or something like it. It did not matter how awkward or unmoored I felt at times, I had decided that a knife and fork were tiny obstacles in relation to the injustices I had known.

So, I applied myself to learning how to use them, conscious of the eyes monitoring the way I defaulted to picking up a piece of chicken or a lamb chop to chomp on the meat closest to the bone, and the ears that heard the clang of a fork against a tiled floor when I dropped it.

I worked on my technique patiently, without telling a soul, eating with cutlery alone in my dorm room. But a sense of uncertainty always hovered by my shoulder, ready to remind me that I was an amateur with temporary access to this world.

It was a relief that the meals my friends and I could afford most days were sandwiches, burgers, fries and tubs of yoghurt; I was good with a spoon, at least.

While spaghetti and steak might prove challenging to eat with your fingers, there are other foods that are not: the ones I grew up with, in a kitchen – on South Africa’s verdant east coast along the Indian Ocean – redolent with the perfume of curry leaves and mustard seeds breakdancing in sizzling oil.

Consider hot-off-the-thava roti and potato curry; creolised chicken and mutton biryanis with finely chopped tomato-and-onion sambals; boiled and buttered taro that we call amadumbe, just cool enough to bite into. Or, short-grain rice served with a ladle of yellow split pea dhal and lemon pickle or just a spoonful of nutty ghee melting into it. These are the meals where only your hands will do. The fingers come together closely, lightly curved, the thumb acting like a lever or a shovel to guide the little ball of curry-and-rice-and-pickles-and-salad to your lips.

The virtues of eating with your hands

Growing up, I had never heard my grandparents or neighbours extol the virtues of eating with one’s hands – it was simply what they did.

But there are countless arguments, studies in neuroscience and neurogastronomy even, in favour of the pleasure factor: the pure, unadulterated and sensuous gratification of touch that accompanies the joys of smelling, tasting and hearing (consider the sound of biting a crisp green apple) involved in the process of eating.

Texts on the Hindu Vedic principles and proponents of Ayurveda suggest that digestion begins not just with the sense of smell or the instant you place food on the tongue, but with touch, firing the neural network and stimulating enzymes that release digestive juices. While our sense of smell is known to trigger memory (think of Proust’s madeleines), the masses of nerves in the fingertips have the ability to signal something delicious is about to arrive, well before you lift your hand.

The physical interaction is essentially what makes eating with the hand infinitely more pleasurable than using cold, sterile implements. There is even a spoon created to mimic the finger by culinary experience designers Andreas Fabian and Charles Michel, although it only works for soft and liquid foods like yoghurt, honey and nut butters.

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Proponents of Ayurveda suggest touch can fire neural networks and stimulates enzymes that release digestive juices [Photo courtesy: Ishay Govender-Ypma]

Hand eating also allows a certain tactile manipulation. You are unlikely to ever burn the roof of your mouth because the hand is able to gauge when the temperature is just right; a personal Goldilocks at your disposal. You can combine textures in a single form: hot foods like rice with cool foods like raita or pickles. This manual breaking-down and mixing is said to be a form of pre-digestion.

It also demands a more singular focus – it is harder for the diner to perform contemporary behaviours like scrolling on a mobile phone when your dominant hand is oily or sticky and coated in sauce.

Thinking back, my first memory of being fed is not with a spoon, but by hand. My mother, like so many from similar cultures, gathered and mashed my lunch with her hand, creating the perfect bite for a tiny mouth. In some cultures, the food is pre-masticated before sharing it with the baby, and in that way, salivary enzymes are distributed between mother and child.

The flora that occurs naturally on one’s hands, a personal system of beneficial microbes, also influences taste. It has been shown that the microbes on a baker’s hands mirror the microbes found in their loaves of sourdough bread, imparting a very specific and unique flavour to each loaf.

But when I sat in that university canteen some 23 years ago, I did not know all of this.

I felt that in order to blend seamlessly into this new world, my oddities – like eating by hand – had to be kept hidden. In public, to some extent, the closer in proximity I appeared to whiteness, the more accepted I believed I would be.

‘People like us’

But in the years since, when I found myself with a new desire to learn to cook better, I reverted to using my hands to eat. There was no fanfare around this: as my sense of independence and self-awareness grew, so did my desire to reconnect with my cultural upbringing. Looking back, I can attribute it to an act of self-love.

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The writer and her Dutch husband, who had to learn to eat with his hands [Photo courtesy: Ishay Govender-Ypma]

Years later, my Dutch husband accompanied me on a year-long research project around South Africa. I was documenting the variety of curries prepared by community home cooks of all ethnicities for my cookbook, Curry: Stories & Recipes Across South Africa. While I unpacked their experiences of living under apartheid, listening to tales of forced removals, complex family trees, hidden genealogical histories and mothers and fathers lost too soon, he was negotiating a new skill. In some homes, when it was clear that our hosts ate only with their hands, my husband had to get on with it.

I recall glaring at him, frustrated at how I had failed to teach him something about my culture that I had grown over time to revere, a skill that meant belonging with “people like us”.

We had travelled together to India and North and East Africa, where he had hobbled awkwardly across the tightrope of hand-eating – an art that, like eating with a knife and fork, also needs practice. Somehow then, he had managed to divert attention from himself during the communal tagine and thali meals. I nagged often: Let me teach you, I would cajole. After a while, I gave up.

But something shifted for him as we worked on that project in South Africa. He did not feel like a tourist needing to adopt temporary behaviour, he told me. This was his new homeland, these were his neighbours and he felt honoured to be invited into their homes.

Watching him learn to eat with his hands in front of them, reminded me of my 17-year-old self at the university canteen, focused and eager to please. Grains of rice spilled, his hand was always messier than everyone else’s, his technique was poor. But it did not matter. Conversation flowed, our hosts offered more rice, more curry. He beamed.

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The writer’s husband and parents sharing a meal, with and without cutlery [Photo courtesy: Ishay Govender-Ypma]

A cultural weapon of exclusion

At a restaurant, my parents use a fork in their right hands, the knife lying askance like an unwanted guest. I see them tense up a little at these tables, even if they enjoy the food.

The tale of the knife and fork as cultural weapons of exclusion is not unique to my family. Still, I am yet to invite my folks to a laborious fine dining meal with numerous courses served alongside a dizzying array of cutlery.

In the past, they have expressed discomfort at dining that plays out like a chapter from the Ramayana, with backs stiff against designer chairs and mouths to be dabbed with white linen napkins.

I tell them about lauded restaurants like the one by Gaggan Anand in Bangkok, where every course of the tasting menu is eaten by hand. It is a growing trend in fine dining these days. And mostly it is immigrant and younger cooks who are challenging the formalities of French dining etiquette.

It was during the first time I travelled to Italy that I encountered the pasta twirl in situ: a parent demonstrating it to a child. A fork reeled in the ribbons, a spoon provided them safe harbour. This was long before I had started writing professionally about food and those who cook it, or judging on international wine and restaurant award panels – restaurants that laid a battalion of glimmering steel on either side of your plate (inside out, or outside in?). The university canteen’s dreary spaghetti Bolognese, the cheap plates, a dizzying combination of my awkwardness and optimism – it always comes back when I see a plate of pasta.

In quiet moments at the table, I may catch myself unconsciously seeking assurance, or the actions of a pasta-eating rugby player to mimic. If I spill something or use the wrong fork, my cheeks flame long after I have left the restaurant.

I have come to accept that these are the unspoken things we do not discuss with our parents, who suffered untold indignities and fought stoically for our freedom – to be educated, to move without restriction, to book eight-course tasting menus if we choose. Such are the unnavigable liminal spaces between generations.

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The writer with her mother [Photo courtesy: Ishay Govender-Ypma]

I often reflect on the passage of Indian merchants and explorers who travelled on their own steam, and those – like my parents’ ancestors – who arrived in foreign lands for a multitude of reasons that are drenched in sorrow.

Low of caste and standing, they arrived in 1860 to work on five-year contracts on the British-owned sugar cane plantations in Durban. They were lured by the promise of wholesome food, decent housing and a better life, none of which materialised. Five years turned into generations, 160 years to be precise.

Now when we dine at home, watching my parents eat joyfully with their hands, fully unfurled as their true selves, being witty or silly and utterly at ease at the table, I feel I am in possession of a cultural trousseau that is impossible to quantify.

And I often wonder how two banal, seemingly innocent kitchen implements forged from steel – a knife and a fork – can hold immigrants and members of the diasporas to ransom at the table.

Source: Al Jazeera