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The Finger Bowl Is an Old Dining Etiquette Tradition That Could Soon Disappear

The tableside rinse has links to an enduring caste system and social hierarchy. So would it be better if it went away for good?

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Two hands dipping into a bowl containing water and a wedge of lime. Creative Family/Shutterstock

I was thrilled when I found out that Sagar, a low-key dosa place in Defence Colony (a neighborhood in South Delhi), had begun “no-contact” restaurant service. On a sweltering June afternoon, I was one of just three diners: a rarity in a place that, pre-pandemic, always had a waiting list. Soon after I registered this strangeness, I became preoccupied with something else: the absence of the finger bowl, a half-moon lemon bobbing in a tepid water rinse, often presented in a stainless-steel bowl. Usually, in casual restaurants like this (where there is typically just one course), the finger bowl appears on the table right after an order is placed. Now, instead, a bottle of chemical-blue hand sanitizer sat at the edge of my table.

“Finger bowls… not allowed anymore?” I asked the server, sure that this was a COVID-19 consequence.

I didn’t get the response I was expecting.

“Haan voh bhi [yes, that also],” he replied, a vague answer that indicated there was more to the story. When I probed, he revealed that “some servers,” particularly those in the “younger generation,” had complained about having to carry the diner’s used rinse, which sometimes had suspicious material floating in it. He excluded himself from this coterie, saying he was not bothered with “such small things,” and could still sneak me a bowl whenever I pleased.

But in just a few months, this everyday dining object, still used across South Asia in establishments both fancy and casual, had taken on an illicit feeling thanks to the pandemic. Around the finger bowl, I sensed contestation and possible extinction.

Behind what appears to be an innocuous culinary object is a tumultuous history with multiple, contested genealogies. The finger bowl appears and disappears on the tables of British, Indian, and American eaters, for whom it has served different purposes through time. It sometimes marked aristocratic splendor, and at other times economic scarcity. Food historians like Katie Stewart and Reay Tannahill teach us that it was key in upper-class English culinary rituals from the Middle Ages on. This was a time when sharing food was common, and having clean hands was all the more important.

In the West, the presence of the finger bowl was common at elite dinner parties and in expensive restaurants during the early 1900s, as the comma between the main course and dessert. As an affirmation of status, it suggested that diners were too privileged to spend precious steps on a trip to the restroom to wash their hands. In an email interview, food historian Alison Smith writes how the finger bowl is, for her, synonymous with her grandmother — born in 1892 — and leisurely meals in Cape Cod. A lover of a “proper dinner table,” and “butlers, chauffeurs, and cooks,” Smith remembers her “beloved granny’s staunch defense of the finger bowl,” which even then inspired a little light-hearted debate around the table. To a young Smith, the object appeared “somewhat archaic and ridiculous.”

Unsurprisingly, the finger bowl is center stage in etiquette books from the early 20th century. These texts were targeted at young women in the U.S. and England, and anglicized women in the Global South. In pedagogical language, the focus is on how to correctly use the object. A brief dabble that “resists the temptation to swish your fingers around” is the norm. Ideally, the ritual should leave the lemon or flower tickled, but firmly intact. Of equal importance to the proper way to use the finger bowl is how and where to place the dinner napkin on which the bowl typically sits. Once used, the napkin should be “loosely” folded and placed on the left side of the service plate, orchestrating progress toward a much-anticipated dessert.

Pink glass bowl with several glass bubbles on its sides.
A glass finger bowl made in Wheeling, West Virginia, after 1886
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

By WWI, many popular American dining restaurants had adopted the finger bowl along with live music. These elements were successful in attracting a wealthier clientele. While there is a record of a threat to the object as early as 1908 — when concerns around its hygiene were first raised — it was eventually ousted in the 1910s, when it came under scrutiny in the larger cultural efforts to “minimize excess” during wartime. It is harder to find mention of it in North America after the 1950s, when it, as one Southern Living article put it, “fell off” the “social radar.” If it appears thereafter, it is mostly in the form of upper class ridicule. For example, in 2002, “Miss Manners” — a moniker for the author of an etiquette column — writes: “If finger bowls don’t stop scaring people and figure out how to make themselves useful once again, even these remaining nights of theirs are numbered. They could be spending the rest of their lives in the cupboard, sulking.”

While Miss Manners indicates the object’s antiquity in the West, the finger bowl has found continued relevance in India, where historical evidence suggests that it first arrived as a colonial object. Early culinary records of regal life in South Asia and the Ottoman empire — where kings commonly had their finger bowls monogrammed with their initials — make only casual mentions of it, pointing to its natural place in these settings. In India, its easy adoption is perhaps related to the existing, pre-colonial South Indian custom of sprinkling a banana leaf — a traditional placeholder for a plate — with water in order to purify it before the meal is served.

Curator and art historian Deepika Ahlawat’s documentation of luxurious glass objects made between 1840 and 1930 in India suggests that finger bowls were important for maharajas, who fused Victorian and Edwardian culinary customs with local culinary influences. As a rule, the more upper-class and -caste the diner, the greater the ornamentation around the chasm between diner and server. Where there was a finger bowl there were indentured butlers, and at least a couple of dozen rich dishes during each meal. As historian Donald Clay Johnson wrote in “First Ladies of the Raj: Status and Empowerment in British India,” in one palace, a member of staff was reportedly responsible for not only delivering one bowl to the maharaja for a rinse of his fingers, but bringing him a second so that he could wash his rings, which may have been removed for the pleasure of his culinary experience.

As early as 1920, the finger bowl was also found in India’s colonial clubs like the Gymkhanas (member-only sports clubs, built by the British), where it still opens lunch and dinner service. In elite homes, it was reserved for the patriarch — the veritable king of the house. We see this in Anita Desai’s 1999 novel, Fasting, Feasting, where to describe the authority of the male figure, Desai writes: “he is the only one in the family who is given a napkin and a finger bowl; they are emblems of his status.”

Whether in the more courtly accounts or in aristocratic, domestic spheres, the finger bowl’s original function in India, we learn, is not really hygiene. Appearing alongside meals that are served individually, and that cater to expanding tastes, it becomes a symbol of power and status rather than a facilitator of cleanliness. Nevertheless, this is what contemporary discussions around the object often hide behind, concealing the more crucial questions of class and caste.

By the late 1970s, the finger bowl was found in many of India’s most upscale dining restaurants, and by the mid-’80s, it was not out of line to ask for one in a fancy restaurant if one wasn’t automatically provided. In an interview, a former hotel receptionist, now in her mid 60s, associated the object with Bukhara, a legendary Mughlai restaurant at the Maurya Sheraton, in New Delhi. In the late ’70s, this establishment was a place to see and be seen. She also links it to sophisticated Chinese restaurants in the 1980s, where it often appeared with an exotic flower, signifying to the eater that he or she was deserving of luxury.

The late 1980s and early ’90s, however, marked a steady trickle down, with the object ending up in spots like the dosa eatery where my server promised to sneak me a bowl. In a phone interview, Delhi-based food critic Marryam Reshii speculated that its introduction here was to the owner’s benefit, because it negated the need to provide functional wash basins — requirements in South Indian restaurants where everyone eats with their hands. It simultaneously pleased customers — even if the material of the finger bowl had changed from white or electro metal to stainless steel — who at this time counted it, along with air conditioning and carpeting, as signs of a “good” restaurant. Meanwhile, friends in the U.S. recall that by this time, the finger bowl had more or less disappeared from elite settings, but were still found in Astoria or Jackson Heights’ mid- to low-budget Indian restaurants (where a packaged toilette now replaces it).

After this decade, the finger bowl mostly vanishes from the memory of Indian-restaurant patrons in the U.S., while in India, it’s become increasingly democratized, and even appears in the odd dhaba casual stalls typically targeted at less privileged long-distance commuters. At odds with the ad-hoc service and dirt-cheap food — which can sometimes be deliciously satisfying, and at other times just belly-filling — the finger bowl was, and still remains, a somewhat humorous anomaly. As one disappointed Tripadvisor reviewer wrote after eating in a Chennai-based dhaba: “the only thing served warm was the finger bowl.”

Of late, online discussions around its use in restaurants veer toward confusion about its relevance, though an appreciation, grounded in both functionality and nostalgia, remains palpable. On Quora — a public Q&A-style chat — the view that the finger bowl is a useful tool in removing “oil and grease” is common, as is the sentiment that it makes guests “feel like maharajas.”

But on platforms like these, as well as around actual restaurant tables I dine on, there is rarely a discussion about what the finger bowl, with its links to an enduring caste system and social hierarchy, means for servers. While I have witnessed public objections to fellow diners “misusing” the object — using the water to dampen their arm or the bowl as a spittoon — the discourse remains confined to correct manners, or, at the most, the object’s charming but strange place in our contemporary culinary rituals. Unfortunately, the expectations most diners have of servers — that they should deal with our bodily waste and risk their mostly insurance-free health statuses (even more precarious in the time of COVID-19) — are still marginal.

If, then, the finger bowl carries with it the power to not only mark class and caste divides, but reproduce them, is the sanitizer a welcome equalizer? Is Sagar, the restaurant where I first encountered the sanitizer as a substitute, in some ways ahead of the curve? I briefly debated whether this non-fancy establishment was perhaps participating in a cultural politics that is more progressive than those of other upscale establishments — which may continue to offer the finger bowl once they open for service after the pandemic — or of aristocratic homes where it never left.

My internal debate led me to reflect on the work of the sanitizer in this context. As there are no etiquette rules governing its use, we experience it as a medical pump that is difficult to romanticize. Introduced at the restaurant door, and then again before the order is taken, the sanitizer makes all diners appear temporarily equal, responsible for their own cleanliness. And unlike the finger bowl, which leaves a visible trace of dirt that must be taken away with urgency, the sanitizer becomes an invisible and continuous presence through the meal. Its use is typically quick, repeated, and almost missable in the course of dining.

Still, while it may seem quite natural to treat hygiene as the fulcrum around which the debate between the sanitizer and finger bowl should take place, historical context reminds us that cleanliness was not the finger bowl’s primary function. Whether in a time of excess or limitation, the finger bowl has identified the most privileged actors in the performance of dining — the high caste, the aristocrat, the blue blood, the upper class, or just the paying customer. In contemporary India, where growing anxieties around food continue to center around caste, the sanitizer may create a visual fracture in marking hierarchy, or the void of a familiar tactile sensation. Its substitution of the finger bowl does little, however, to rupture the multiple ways in which food and its rituals continue to organize and reify social inequality.

Meher Varma is a New Delhi-based anthropologist and writer. Her interests include food, fashion, and gender in post-liberalization India.
Fact-checked by Dawn Mobley