Finger bowl. Image credit: Flickr
Finger bowl. Image credit: Flickr

A finger bowl comprising warm water with a floating lemon slice is used to wash fingers after meals at the food table. These bowls are supposed to add convenience to the dining experience, as they cut out the need to head to the washroom or use the wash basin after meals. Common in formal and luxury restaurants, finger bowls can also be found in homes where food is served by servants. In fact, some restaurants, when finger bowls first arrived at the scene, promoted finger bowls as a special feature to entice customers. However, after many restaurants adopted the finger bowl culture, the elite status attached to finger bowls diffused.


In restaurants, once the guest is done eating the meal, the waiter clears the plates and brings over the finger bowl. The finger bowl arrives before the dessert. The guest then immerses his fingers into the bowl and cleans them gently, not spilling the water over. But since the water may spill over during use, the bowl is usually placed on a doily (a small paper mat) or plate, so that the table cloth is not ruined.

Lemon Slice

The lemon slice is not mandatory – some finger bowls may not have them. Lemon is acidic in nature, which means it can easily break the bond strength of oil particles. In other words, it makes it easier to clean the oil stuck to the fingers. Warm water also helps clear the oil residues. Also, lemon has anti-bacterial and germicidal traits, which frees the fingers from unseen bacteria. However, the lemon in the finger bowl is not supposed to be touched, squeezed, or eaten. In some extremely rare cases, warm soapy water may replace lemon and water.

Uncommon Practice

A finger bowl is not common, and this is primarily because not all eat directly from their hands. Spoons, forks, chopsticks, etc. are often used as substitutes. Even in countries such as India where eating with hands is customary and the food is oily, finger bowls are rarely used, certainly not in houses. Generally, as aforementioned, finger bowls are limited to elite restaurants or places where people like to strictly adhere to dining etiquette.