Like the layers of a mille feuille, culture and cuisine are inseparable. They're so deeply interwoven that even when the specific historical reasoning behind bits of culinary etiquette has long passed, the customs themselves are timeless. So while specific spiritual beliefs, religious rituals, technology or geography might have led to hand-to-mouth dining throughout the vast, various parts of South Asia, the best reason now to eat with your hands is simple.
Food tastes better that way. And in most cases, it's much, much easier.
Niwala, the Hindi and Urdu word that translates directly to "morsel" or "bite," encompasses the essence of eating with your hands. Tear off a piece of bread – whether naan, paratha, puri or roti – scoop up a chunk of meat, vegetables, lentils or all of the above, collect the fiery curry and balance it off with a dip of cooling raita (a yogurt-based dip). Each niwala acts as a tiny, bite-sized sandwich in which several elements of the meal come together.
The soft flesh of your fingertips – camouflaged behind each bite – totes food seamlessly into your mouth. It's infinitely superior to hard plastic against your lips or a bent metal fork on your tongue, distracting you from intricate spices. Quintessential niwalas effortlessly (and tidily) fuse a meal's flavours together in every bite.
Good luck eating a samosa with a fork and knife; watch as the filling falls out or half the triangular treat shoots across the room. Sure, you can attempt navigating a piece of tandoori chicken with a fork and knife. But as you get closer to the bone, rigid tableware is no match for dextrous fingers that allow you to grab even the smallest, hard-to-reach pieces with ease. I'll admit that eating rice with my hands is a skill I have yet to master. But when it comes to breaking bread and sopping up curry, hands have an undeniable advantage.
As with mastering the art of chopsticks, creating perfect, balanced niwalas takes practice. Just don't forget to wash your hands first.