The 'Thumb' Rule Of Sensory Pleasure

There is more to the idea of eating with your hands than just the multisensory pleasure of dining – it is a definite way to sensory retraining to a healthier, happier you.   

By Madhulika Dash 


A few years ago, when Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure, curated his first multi sensory dining experience called Sense & Sensibility, little did the culinary wizard realise the kind of perception altering dining he was launching. 

Based on the simple yet exhilarating idea of blocking one sense at a time through the six course gourmet trail in the beginning, the curation of the limited dining experience turned out to be a challenge right from the start. The challenge wasn't just the menu which comprised some of the oldest dishes from across different global cultures, including the now famous Atta Chicken and the banana flower salad and millet pilaf, but also in picking that one flavour that would manage to do the magic with senses blocked for sometime, especially that of smell, sound and sight.

It took nearly a month of reworking the board for Chef Seth and his team to finally zero in on a menu that could stand the test, complete with music and the ambience - an open space next to a water body with fish. Essential oils, blindfolds, bowls of Arabica Coffee beans, molecular gastronomy and monochromatic dishes made for key tools that could aid in giving diners that full on experience. 

Yet, the one thing that the team hadn't realised was the way diners would react to a meal that was a happy marriage of both traditional cooking, fusion and molecular presentation. The first edition that had hosted some of India's and international top chefs, nutritionists, scientists and culinary experts proved to be an eye-opener not only in the way each of the diner responded to the neuro gastronomical experience but also the response to the mode of eating. 

Tactile tastes

While  shutting down of senses, especially smell and sight aided in the discovery of pungent, sweeter and spicier notes, curiously it was the idea of not touching the food that led to a delayed response to the food, and in some cases even confusion. Adding to the sensory chaos was not only the molecular presentation of some of the dishes that plays on the idea of un-familiarisation, but also some of the forgotten ingredients. 

The most interesting takeaway of the curative experience, recalls Chef Seth, “was how differently diners reacted to similar dishes when they were allowed to eat with their hand and when they were not. Suddenly the food that seemed alienated because one couldn't smell the dish thanks to a dash of essential oil rubbed on the base of the nose and eaten with a spoon, was endowed with a sensory connection when eaten with hands. Diners could anticipate the flavours and could choose what to eat and what to avoid.” 

That observation became the prime reason for Chef Seth to make his forthcoming Sense & Sensibility editions a hands-on experience. In doing so, Chef Seth joined the many advocates and scientists who have over the years worked to give credence to the age-old saying of “food tastes infinitely better when eaten with hands and healthier too.”

So what is it about our hand – especially our thumbs – that allows us to have an intimate relationship with our food. Turns out, among all the senses that help us engage with food, smell being the most significant, hands are a close second when it comes to kick starting the Somatosensory System. This enables us with the remarkable skill of object recognition, texture discrimination and sensory motor feedback. In other words, a collective function that decides our response or reaction to food among other things. 

It is the one sensory function that we share with the primates when it comes to connecting with food. It is an inherent way in which we decipher not just the ripeness of a food but also design the reaction to its readiness to eat or not. In fact, the feel of a food, despite its visual allure and aroma, often plays the deciding role in the following: if we would eat it, how much would we eat and establish the initial connect of joy with the food before the taste buds justify it. 

Finger food

This ability to generate sensory feedback simply by the feel is in fact the reason behind the agility with which we traverse through different cuisines globally, give us the familiarisation of identifying new ingredients and good produce, and in some mysterious way, build our food discipline as well. 

It was the awareness of hands' magical ability to curate the simple pleasure of food that made our ancestors not only devise the custom of eating with hands but also evaluate the goodness of ingredients by using our fingers, especially the thumb, which helps Morse Code the edibility of a produce to the mind to make an informed purchase.

Fascinatingly, it is this wired-in connect of our fingers to the brain and the eventual engagement that made techniques like mashing, massaging, mixing, marinating and even serving with hand such an integral part of not just cooking but of the eating experience as well. This is also one of the reasons why street foods are so popular in every culture throughout history. 

It allows for a  multi-sensory experience where the senses are engaged in creation of the food while culminating in a way that maximises on the feel factor as well. Take the golgappa vendor for instance. While the street favourite doesn't score much on the aroma segment when compared to samosa or rolls, it works on the sight and secondary feel. This allows one to experience the familiar feel of the crushing of boiled potatoes, the addition of seasoning, the peppering with other condiments to create the perfect filling, followed by the rhythmic dipping in mint water till the filled gappa is dropped in the bowl in our hand. 

While the final test is of course the taste, the sight almost mimics the same sensory feedback as it would when one's own hand is employed. Curiously though, this second feeling of indulgence is often reserved to spaces where fresh food is involved rather than ultra processed, packaged, ready to cook or eat variety. And the reason for this, say experts, has to do with our inherent sensory connection with produce rather than reformatted versions. 

One of the many reasons that even today, while pretty looking produce have become the norm, the selection of edible ones are still done mostly by the touch and pressing – the same way chimpanzees and monkeys forage for ripened fruit in the wild. Raw food that doesn't adhere to our set senses for edibility often are rejected despite the way it may look or smell. This is the case with pulses as well. 

Over the years, this sensory knowledge that has been passed from one generation to another has suffered a setback courtesy the advent of not only packaged food, new form of dining that values cutlery over hand but also e-commerce sites that have in the course of time blunted these senses which unlike smell, sight and sound doesn't suffer the march of age. 


Touch me not?

Today, most of our sensory pleasure with food is derived from sight and smell with the sound coming a miniscule last with music rather than food sounds taking over the senses. Result, even though there are many dining spaces that extol for multisensory efficacy, the intimate connect with food has been visibly reduced to just the taste. TV dinners and instant meals have proved a deterrent. For the modern demography, the lack of the touch, senses like sound remain in oblivion unless faced with a life-threatening situation like stroke or otherwise.     

But that was until the arrival of COVID a few years ago, when the loss of smell or anosmia that dominates our relationship with food today, took a beating. The loss that has always played a significant role in making healthier, wiser choices when it came to food was disorienting as it rendered not just cooking but enjoying food a lifeless chore. A barrier that even “nostalgia” couldn't help dent. With life's important pleasure 'out of order', one easily slipped into mental chaos and sadness till one regained it a few weeks later. 

For most, it was the time when eating relied on the other senses, especially the hand as the feel was the only thing that gave us some semblance of the sensory pleasure, albeit not enough. After all, the loss of smell also affects the mouth and nose connection that helps us relish food better.

Result, while the return of smell made us engage in culinary experience with a revenge, be it in cooking, purchasing or dining, the regained olfactory system wasn't like before. For those who suffered the epidemic, the return of the nose came with new adjustments like there were smells that were new, aromas that they couldn't decipher but recalled with memory and then those that didn't have the same intensity. 

The result was the natural move towards using other senses like the hand in an attempt to get the wholesome experience of before. Suddenly, finger foods, regional thalis served and had the traditional way took precedence to the formal setting of the yore. Restaurants revived the Gueridon service to upscale the multisensory experience of dining out. 

Open kitchens and ovens were a norm with quite a few dishes made to order like the garlic bread that could weave and waft the sensory pleasures of food. The mushrooming of coffee places replete with live roasting and experiential spaces became the new multi-sensory avenues to the world that had experienced the deficit of one of the prime senses.

The result was the widening base for studies, research and experimentation much like Chef Seth's Sense & Sensibility that extolled not only the virtues of turning food into a hands-mostly experience but also the efficacy of reactivating the Somatosensory System with one study done by the Journal Of Retailing along with New York based Stevens University going on to prove how the ‘hands experience’ could also be a way to eat healthier. 

Food for thought

In a controlled study, the researchers at the University were able to prove that eating with hands not only helped portion the meal but also the sensory connect helps create the perfect bite that can help reach satiation early, thus limiting how much one can eat at a sitting. A fact that vedic science had discovered and effectively implemented with the Indian style eating rituals. 

In fact, the study also realised that eating with hands also has this subtle but adverse effect on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain thereby reducing impulsive eating or overeating. And though the findings came with a caveat of “with disciplined eaters”, Indian customary eating rituals have more than proved the possibility through the years. 

The secret is the effective use of hands. A great example of this is the pleasure of eating sadya or the prasad at any temple. The whole concept of eating out of a banana leaf using your hands by default triggers not just the food memory even as the food is served but the dynamics of creating the perfect bite just with the feel of food. This freedom to sense with your fingers is as a matter of fact one of the reasons that such meals minus all the frills of modern day dining score highest on the sensory satiation. Of course, with these meals another factor that works is also the use of ingredients and the cooking style that allows even the skin to experience the same sensory high as one would with the nose. 

Little wonder, no matter how hungry one is, there is always a limit to which one can eat the food – even if gluttony strikes.