Hands on Food
From the Series: HandsOn: Touching the Digital Planet
“Every habit lends our hand more wit but makes our wit less handy.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Amir pats the ball of dough with vegetable oil and sets it alongside a dozen others at his roadside stand in a Kuala Lumpur night market. It glistens from the heat and elasticity of his energetic kneading. He is re-working what was prepared earlier—a mix of refined wheat flour, water, eggs, margarine, salt, and a bit of sugar. He dips his fingertips in oil, wipes sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve, and picks up another, banging it flat on his metal working table—peeling, flipping, and turning, spreading the dough thinner with each unthinking throw.
Food has been central to anthropology, and lately to the sociology of consumption, yet cooking is under-interrogated as a site of theorization (Sutton 2021). Cooking is one of the last things people do by hand, even after they have given up sewing, cobbling, and carpentry.
Chandrahas Choudhury, an Odia writer, notes that the only thing that connects the cuisines of Indians is eating with hands (2022). The tepid sensuousness of rice and daal, roti and vegetables, connects not only Indians but also people from the Middle East, most of sub-Saharan Africa, and the eastern rim of the Bay of Bengal, between the users of fork and chopsticks on either end. The complaint of a Bengali respondent resonates around the ocean rim: “hathe na khele, pet bharena” (unless I eat with my fingers, my stomach is never full). Mann et al. (2011) write eloquently about the “composite viscosity” of eating with fingers: the khichuri (a rice and daal dish), their mixed method, multiple authorship, subject and object, theory and instance, the tasting finger and tongue. Eating with hands has its own civilizing/disciplining process, just as it is with the use of silverware or chopsticks. There is a segregation of proper and improper hand and task. One of those rules is the tabooed left hand over the right. The “bottom-wiping” hand and the eating hand, Mann et al. are politely told, must be kept separate. No one corrects the Westerners that people who eat with their hands don’t wipe their bottoms they wash them with the left hand while precariously pouring water with the right in a delicately balanced squat, bringing the hands directly back in touch with the other end of their alimentary tracts. As the last Mughal Emperor is rumored to have snorted about the English, “People who do not know how to wash their own bottoms, want to rule the world.”
In the village of Mikatawani, about an hour’s drive from Zanzibar City, I watch Wahida slice through onions, tomatoes, and okra with a paring knife on her palm, then use her body weight to grate coconut while sitting on a low stool and stir the lumpy ugali with the full torque of her hips. She walks over to grab the 6-foot-high pestle of the wooden chokaa, pummeling cassava leaves with a head of garlic and a habanero pepper. After feeding us, she squats to make golf ball size orbs of ugali, dips them in the sauce, and delicately pops one after the other into her mouth with her fingertips.
The movement of Wahida’s hands echoes Kuntala’s cooking prep thousands of kilometers away in Balasore, a small town on India’s eastern coast. She is bent over a bonti (a squatting knife with a wooden base) finely chopping cucumber for a raita. She splits it in two longitudinal slices, then four. Turning each slice, re-aligning the axis, a dozen quick, sharp cuts, her body swaying with each thrust, a jade green pile of cucumber cubes falls onto a melamine plate positioned underneath.
There is a resonance between the body-techniques of Amir, Wahida, and Kuntala in the way they use their hands and leverage the weight of their bodies by squatting and standing. More than a generation ago, archaeologist Neville Chittick (1980) characterized the Indian Ocean littoral as the largest cultural continuum in the world; recent research has strengthened that argument (Sheriff and Ho 2014; Amrith 2014). That connectivity shows up in everyday technologies like the coconut grater or machete and in body-techniques of roti making. There are differences too in how the knife is wielded or whether the machete moves towards the body or away from it within the two halves of the Indian Ocean world.
The roti is the domestic diva of sub-continental breads, made with the simplest ingredients of whole wheat flour, a pinch of salt, and just enough water to make a dough. Roasted on a heavy metal tava, it puffs before being blistered directly over the flame. Domestic style Indian roti dries quickly and is typically consumed right away. When these rotis travel the Indian Ocean littoral they tend to be made with refined flour to increase shelf life, and fat is added to make the dough more pliable and durable in the marketplace. These fat-added breads are often called parathas or porotta on the sub-continent, but in Kuala Lumpur they go by the name of roti canai (possibly named after the peninsular Indian city Chennai). In Zanzibar, the fat-added chapati is common as working-class urban breakfast with tea, quickly replacing ugali/uji with the younger generation.
Theorizing life as an eating subject undermines human exceptionalism. Annmarie Mol (2021) compares the benefit of eating in theory to better known instances of walking in theory—such as by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Tim Ingold. As a walker I move through the world, but as an eater the world moves through me, she asserts. Cooking adds further social risk. Practices like cooking and eating precede individuals, who are thrown into a world with standards of mutually intelligible and acceptable behavior. How is the roti I am making related to the agreed upon assumption that I am making a roti and not a paratha or a puri or a roti canai? Shared standards of habituated practice frame such activities. This is the new behavioral understanding of culture, which is less enamored with values in the head, and more focused on repetitive, automatic, bodily practices as Amir, Wahida and Kuntala illustrate (Warde 2016: 100).
Making roti for the first time was, for me, transformative. I had planned on getting four done but the dough stuck to my fingers and sides of the bowl so I ended up with three. Two of them puffed and blistered surprisingly well. One caught fire. It made a mess of my kitchen. Ingold has written so little about cooking in his book on making, yet most people will likely cook more often than build a building or weave a basket. Perhaps that is the point—make stuff by hand that you have never before—it will trigger theoretical contemplation.
Amrith, Sunil. 2013. Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Chittick, Neville. 1980. “East Africa and the Orient: Ports and Trade before the Arrival of the Portuguese.” In Historical Relations across the Indian Ocean, report, 13–22. Paris: UNESCO.
Choudhury, Chandrahas. 2022. “On the Pleasures of Eating with your Fingers,” Wall Street Journal. March 5, 2022.
Ingold, Tim. 2013. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. New York: Routledge.
Mann, Anna, Annemarie Mol, Priya Satalkar, Amalinda Savirani, Nasima Selim, Malini Sur, and Emily Yates-Doerr. 2011. “Mixing Methods, Tasting Fingers: Notes on an Ethnographic Experiment,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1, no. 1: 2210–243.
Mol, Annemarie. 2021. Eating in Theory. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Sheriff, Abdul and Enseng Ho., eds. 2014. The Indian Ocean. Oceanic Connections and the Creation of New Societies. London: Hurst Publishers.
Sutton, David. 2021. Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, with Greek Example. London: Berghahn Books.