Purell from my Malaysia trip - you'll need LOTS of this

Eat with your hands in Asia

Eat with your hands in Asia for meals like the locals – but be prepared! There may not be paper towels or napkins, or even soap. Here’s what you need to know to stay clean and safe when eating with your hands in Asia.

[If you’re squeamish, here’s a warning. You may find this post to be disturbing, on par with the post on airline bacteria]

Eat with your hands in Asia

Paradox: The more likely a culture is to eat meals with their hands in Asia, the less likely to find napkins on the table. Or even soap in the bathrooms. Disturbing!

Mailbag: You’ll love choosing your own fresh fish at a market and eating street food. However, I’ve been asked a bunch of related questions about the quality of food and safety of eating street food. Also the cleanliness of restaurants. I’ve also been asked if the “Three Seashells” method was used (best line from the movie, Demolition Man).  This post is for you! So yes, after traveling around KL and all around Malaysian Borneo, I had to make a few mental adjustments and preparations.

Here are a few observations:

  • If you’re at a restaurant where you eat with your hands, like I found frequently in Malaysia, often no utensils are used. This is common in lots of other areas in the world. Occasionally you find chopsticks and definitely no forks, no knives. Not even a spork!  Westerners are used to using our hands for foods like hamburgers, fruit, and bite sized appetizers, but nothing as little as rice, and nothing messy. You’ll adjust. Here’s the icky part. Get your hand sanitizer ready…

The cleansing power of water

  • That bowl of water is NOT for drinking. Street restaurants occasionally have a bowl that acts as a communal hand washing station. In my first exposure to it, the guy next to me dipped his hands in it and the water changed color. I thought it was the first time he washed is hands in days. Lovely. Be prepared…

Using the Cucumber Method after you eat with your hands in Asia

The Cucumber Method: Beyond a bowl of murky water, rarely are any napkins provided. They typically aren’t even available upon request. Occasionally you’ll find another bowl with sliced cucumbers. These are not there to be eaten but rather to be squeezed and rubbed until whatever crud you have gets off your hands.

Tiny tissues provided

If you’re really lucky, in rare instances, instead of the cucumber solution for hand-washing is a dispenser of tiny tissues. Given the previous two bullets, this is a welcome addition. It’s often custom to eat with your hands in Asia, and the food is not exactly neat. Thus this level of quality tissues dissipate right in your hands.

Napkins? Paper towels?

Paper towels? Napkins?  Never heard of them. If they give any paper, it’s tissues that evaporate with water.

Tissues are apparently the same thing. People often eat with their hands, but there’s typically no paper (napkin, towel, tissue) to wipe them afterward. After going to the bathroom there’s often no soap. Thus, they’re just rinsing water on their hands. Then they go back to eating with their hands.

Here’s the icky part when you eat with your hands in Asia

Bathrooms often don’t have toilet paper (or tissues). Get used to making sure you have your own supply with you. Or do as the locals do. In most of Asia, locals don’t use “wasteful” toilet paper. They use a hose next to the toilet.  That’s right, it’s the same hose that everybody touches. Perhaps that solution would be fine, if only there were soap. There’s typically no soap. They eat with their hands, but often don’t provide soap to clean those hands. Ewwh.

Bathrooms without soap in Asia??

Bathrooms rarely have paper towels or air drying. In most cases they don’t have soap (including nicer places). Apparently they believe in the cleansing power of water. Perhaps this whole soap thing is a just a fad. Perhaps they don’t believe in Hepatitus A. How can a country where everyone eats with their hands not have soap in the bathrooms!?!  I found that last part rather disturbing.

Now let’s tie this together. Especially in small towns, people often eat with their hands in Asia. That’s because there’s typically no paper (napkin, towel, tissue) to wipe them afterward. After going to the bathroom there’s often no soap. Thus they’re just rinsing water on their hands. Afterward they go back to eating with their hands.

BYO hand sanitizer, Pepto, tissues, napkins

You’ll want to bring a few things with you in your daypack.

What to bring to eat with your hands

Thus, I felt like my time in Malaysia was unofficially sponsored by Purell hand sanitizer and Kleenex. This is because hand sanitizer and tissues are must-have items in my day-bag at all times. With questionable meals, Pepto tablets before meals are a must. This is especially the case in unsanitary, dirty, or just questionable conditions.

Travelers sickness

While many people get “travelers sickness.” I was lucky. Somehow in 6 months I only got sick once. And this was not in SE Asia. It was in the desert of Jordan. Eat with your hands in Asia, but be prepared.

With all of that said, I really loved the food in Malaysia. It’s one of the best cooking in Southeast Asia is in Malaysia. If you go, just be prepared and you’ll love it!

The 3 Seashells Method

Below is the clip I referenced from the movie Demolition Man, which is set in the future. They have an unconventional method of washing their hands.

if you eat with your hands in Asia, you'll want soap and toilet paper. Instead you might see the 3 seashells method (just kidding, it's a Meme from Demolition Man)
Meme from Demolition Man

What do you think? Join the convo, and add your comments here :)