What Do We Gain by Eating With Our Hands?

BEFORE THE $135-PER-PERSON tasting menu begins, you are gently invited to wash your hands. A sink stands along the wall. It’s important to make these ablutions publicly, to show everyone that your hands are clean, because at Naks, a Filipino restaurant that opened in Manhattan’s East Village in December, there are no forks on the tables — no eating implements of any kind.

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You may hardly notice at first. It’s easy enough to down a shot of duck broth spiked with sour-bright bilimbi and spiced coconut-sap vinegar, delivered in an eggshell with the top broken off — the chef Eric Valdez’s winking take on the street food balut (fertilized duck egg) — and to daintily lift canapés like sea urchin on a pad of ground white corn small enough to tuck into a ring box, slippery sea cucumber held in place by firmer slices of its land-bound cousin and raw beef tenderloin sandwiched between ruffles of beef chicharron and doused with beef bile for a faint, anchoring bitterness. Later, whimsical alternatives to utensils appear: a chicken-and-shrimp meatball speared by the end of a whistle-clean bone so that it looks like a drumstick; grilled chicken skin, crispy and plush at once, on skewers that turn out to be twigs.

Between courses, servers offer batons of hot towels and silently whisk them away after use. Then kamayan, Tagalog for eating with the hands, truly begins. Pancit batil patong, noodles dressed in a deep beefy broth, are scooped out directly onto the banana leaves that cover the tables. For some diners, this might be a novel experience, winding the strands around the fingers, feeling them slick against the skin. Next comes lechon liempo (roasted pork belly), the luscious meat rolled tight around a bouquet of lemongrass, ginger, garlic, scallions and green chiles. The skin, dark gold and translucent as stained glass, is pure crackle. It snaps effortlessly. But the meat resists: You have to dig in, grasp for purchase, wrestle to tear off a piece. The night I went to Naks, the lechon arrived still hot to the touch; I had to snatch my hand back and wait, yearning.

The restaurateur Nicole Ponseca gives a tutorial on how to properly eat a kamayan feast.CreditCredit…David Chow

In parts of Africa, South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, eating with the hands has long been tradition and today for some remains routine, whether done in the comfort of home or at banquets where the highest levels of propriety prevail. But in the West, only certain foods and scenarios are exempt from flatware: on the high end, the kind of finger food doled out to guests as they mill about at cocktail parties, bites at once rarefied and pragmatic, built to be popped into the mouth with minimal trickle and spill; and on the low, the likes of burgers and chicken wings, foods that mark a momentary reprieve from table manners, juices running down the fingers. So clearly demarcated are these categories that in the United States, it can be as much of a faux pas to use utensils as not, as the former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio discovered when he was photographed applying fork and knife to a pizza in Staten Island in 2014. He pleaded his heritage, noting that in Italy, this choice was acceptable, even recommended. Critics scoffed. One declared it “blasphemy.”

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