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JULIE SAHNI vividly remembers the first time she had to eat with utensils. Ms. Sahni, a New York-based cookbook author and cooking teacher, grew up in India eating the traditional way, with her right hand. Then, in college, she won a dance competition that would take her to Europe. How, she wondered, would she eat?
The answer was a three-day immersion course in Western dining etiquette, which progressed from soup (don’t let the spoon clatter on the bowl) to green beans (spear them without sending them into your neighbor’s lap) and finally a slippery hard-boiled egg. Ms. Sahni, 66, mastered the knife and fork, but she has never really liked them. “Eating with the hands evokes great emotion,” she said. “It kindles something very warm and gentle and caressing. Using a fork is unthinkable in traditional Indian eating. It is almost like a weapon.”
When the chef Roy Choi surveys the busy dining room of A-Frame, his restaurant in Culver City, Calif., only one thing can dampen his mood: cutlery. “I see people cutting kalbi ribs like a steak, and it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard,” he said. A-Frame, whose eclectic menu Mr. Choi says was inspired by Hawaiian cuisine, is utensils optional. Though a basket of silverware is provided at each table, when the grilled pork chop or market salad arrives, servers advise customers that they’ll be missing out if they pick up a fork. “Then there are a lot of questions like ‘Am I really supposed to?’ and ‘Is there something else I need?’ ” Mr. Choi said. “But the moment we answer ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ people usually just go for it.”
Etiquette, as a matter of fact, is central to most traditions of hand-to-mouth eating; the artfulness and ritual of the practice is part of what people love about it. Hand-washing often comes first. In Muslim communities, a prayer of thanks comes next. Only then can one reach in — usually with just the right hand — to eat.