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Why Malays Eat with Their Hand?

The Chersonese with the Gilding Off is usually described as a companion volume to Isabella Bird’s better-known The Golden Chersonese , published in 1883 and also available as an Oxford Paperback. Starkly written and with a wry sense of humour, it is vastly different to Isabella Bird’s rather idyllic account. Seeing the Malayan country `under totally different circumstances’, Innes’s describes her lonely and uncomfortable life as the wife of a minor government official, and her reluctant participation in the pettiness of colonial society, and in the life of the kampung around her.


In her book, she briefly described her story meeting a Malay aristocrat, Tengku Kudin.


Title Page

Chersonese With Gilding Off

Emily Innes

Published by Bentley, 1885

More about Tengku Kudin link to Burung Murai.

One day Tengku Kudin was invited by a  British Resident  to attend a reception dinner at the resident’s home.

When all guests were seated and waited for the meal to be served, Tengku Kudin suddenly woke up to the direction of the water pipe and washed his hands. Without  concerning  others’ perception towards him (the rest of the guests were  using  forks and cutting knife), Tengku Kudin comfortably and without hesistation, ‘sholved’ the food to the square mouth with his hands!

Tengku Kudin’s  ‘ungentlement’ behaviour was  noted by an Englishwoman who happened to sit on his side.



Feeling  ackward with  Tengku Kudin’s mannerism, the woman then asked:

“Why do you eat with your hands?

Don’t you think that eating with  fork and knife is more  civilized? “


Tengku Kudin answered loudly and  hastenly, till the rest of the guests listened . He said:

” There are three reasons I eat with my hands:”

First:  I know for sure that my hands are cleaner than the forks and spoons as it was me who cleaned them –   not other people.  The forks and knifes washed by another person  are  not necessarily clean.

Second: I believe that my hands are cleaned because I am the only one use them.  Nobody else uses them,  my hands never been borrowed by others, while the forks and knives are being used by many people.

Third: I believe my hands more cleaned because they never  fall in the drain!

Tengku’s answers made all the guests dropped their jaws.  If before this, the guests looked down on  the way Tengku Kudin’s eat  by giving him sarcastic smiles,  now they just nod their heads in agreement to the logics behind Tengku Kudin’s answers.

Tengku Kudin

More on Eating with hand see the Arts of Eating


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Filed under: Customs & Etiquette, History Reveals,

One Response

  1. Raudhah says:

    the real reason why Muslims eat with their hands is that in between our fingers contain an enyme which helps in digestion. but of course, the three reasons Tengku Kuding gave are brilliant and logical🙂

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