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Eating with your hands – a food tour without cutlery

November 16, 2018

people eating a big platter of Ethiopian food with their hands

“Of course I’m comfortable eating with my hands – I’m Asian!” laughs Ida. Most of our group agree and, as this is Dubai, they are from many different cultures including Oman, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, India, Philippines and the Emirates. Just a couple of us have that shivery feeling about relinquishing cutlery and getting our fingers sticky. But that’s what tonight is all about on a food tour around the back streets of Dubai. Exactly what does it mean to connect so directly with our food?

We’re perched round a long table outside a tiny kitchen in Karama. The foul (aka ful aka fava beans aka dried broad beans) arrive; they’ve been slow-cooked for eight hours in an idra (special, domed pot). The fawn-coloured mush, adored by so many in the Middle East (especially in Egypt and Lebanon) is never that alluring to me, but this is different. We’re at a Sudanese restaurant which has just three things on the menu; little beef sausages (soujouk) with spicy, peanut sauce, pickled vegetables, and their version of this beloved pulse. We dig in using chunks of fluffy buns called Khubz Samoon to scoop it up. My indifference about ful evaporates as this is light in texture with a delicious citrus tang. Simmered with tomatoes, onions, garlic and cumin until soft and smooth, then adorned with chopped, fresh tomatoes, onions, a bit of garlic, finely chopped lettuce, crumbled feta cheese, and sprinkled with sesame oil and lemon juice. I make an “illegal manoeuvre” (to quote Arva, the Frying Pan Tour’s Head Honcho) of dunking some of the bread and ful into the dipping sauce (dakwa) of peanut butter, shatta (red fermented chilli paste) and lime. This is our first stop so I’m trying to pace myself , but it’s difficult to resist. I feel most exposed eating the sausages with my fingers; after years of conditioning, I feel naked without small wooden cocktail sticks.

Most of us on the tour haven’t met before and having these central dishes as a focal point means the conversation is more communal. It strikes me that when you eat with a knife and fork from your own plate you tend just to talk to your neighbour. I’ve suffered at dinner parties, feeling isolated when those either side of me are facing in the opposite direction. A common plate breaks the ice straight away.

The restaurant owner comes out to wave us goodbye and we stroll round the corner. A man in an orange shirt can be glimpsed through a small hatch in the steamy window of a shop front. He’s a constant blur of movement, his feet planted but his hands never stopping. The pavement outside is bright with flashing, coloured lights, and music pounds with a rhythmic, Indian beat. We’re at Chaat Bazaar – chaat means lick in Hindi; a term not associated with good table manners but with mouth-watering anticipation. A lady in fuscia pink hovers at the hatch tossing her head back expertly to eat one, two, three and more of the snacks that orange man prepares so expertly.  He makes around 2000 of them per night.

Chaat restaurant in Dubai

We line up to take our turn. The hand of orange man extends a pani puri from the depths and is our connection from inside to outside.  The little sphere with a hole in the top needs to be grasped and consumed immediately or risk disaster.  A very, fine, crispy shell is traditionally filled with something firm (often potato), some sweet chutney and a sharp liquid; it needs to be popped into your mouth whole or it could collapse and dribble down your chin. In some parts of India they’re called puchka after the sound made when you crunch your teeth into the carapace.

These particular pani puri contain ragda – a soft, turmeric-scented, yellow, lentil paste; a sticky, jaggery-laden, tamarind chutney; and a ladle full of theekha pani (spicy water) made with fresh herbs and spices served chilled, adding contrast to the warm ragda.. The explosion of sweet and sour with the jumble of flavours and textures is what makes them so addictive.  We jostle round the window for this ultimate street food; there is no possible alternative to eating it by hand.

In the Ayurvedic tradition, every finger in your hand connects to an element. Each is a conduit: the thumb is space: the index finger is air: the middle finger is fire: the ring finger is water, and the little finger is earth. It’s believed that bringing all the fingers together to touch the food stimulates the five elements and brings forth the digestive juices.  Eating without cutlery takes you to a higher place.

We’re ready for our next adventure and squeeze side by side on slender benches and squat stools around small, table-like baskets (called a mesob).  Within the dusky pink walls of this tiny Ethiopian restaurant there’s a bit of trepidation as a few of our group have had bad experiences of this cuisine. It takes considerable skill to produce Ethiopian food well, but the Frying Pan team has done a lot of research and vouches that this is the best place in town. We can see into the small kitchen, staffed solely by women, some dressed in bright robes others in crisp white and dark aprons. They weave around each other calmly in a way that feels choreographed, chopping, stirring, and assembling large platters.

A flat, round dish or gebeta is placed in front of us and fills the whole of the mesob. Sarah grasps the domed cover by its slender top and whisks it away to reveal an astonishing array of little portions of food. The colours are jewel-like, it looks like inkspot painting, the scents are sharp and heady. The platter is lined with injera and rolls of it are placed around the edge. This is a fermented bread made of the ancient tef grain. The humid climate and temperatures of Dubai are challenging to the fermentation process so Sarah, the owner, ships in the dough every week from Ethiopia.

How on earth do I eat this without a fork? I feel very daunted but luckily there’s expert tuition. Nahla gives an overview about etiquette (stay within a vague triangular shape in front of you, only use your right hand, don’t touch your lips with your fingers), then Arva dives in. Tearing off a triangular piece of injera, she deftly scoops up some of the meat stew and a portion of the hard-boiled egg. Tucking it neatly into a rolled parcel she pops it into her mouth. Spurred on, we all tuck in.  Having eaten rice dishes by hand before, I find it easier using bread as a scoop as is forms a barrier between the meaty gravy and my fingers.  Easier but not easy.

It’s not just the method of eating that feels challenging, it’s also the amount. Sarah has put something of everything from the kitchen on each platter.  The meat dishes have been simmered with berbere, a spice mix which includes paprika and chilli, and it gives the stews a rich, dark, purple colour. There is Doro Wat (chicken and caramelised onion stew with a boiled egg), Key Wot (beef), potatoes and meat, carrots and fasoolia (carrots and string beans), carrots and gomane (carrots and cabbage), spinach and meat, Tibs (spicy meat stew), two types of Firfir (a tomato and injera stew, one spicy and one alitcha – which means ‘coward’), salad and aib (cottage cheese). The injera at the bottom is the nicest as it soaks up all the juices into its lacy folds.

wall of Ethiopian restaurant in Dubai

Next we’re introduced to traditional Ethiopian hospitality which is to feed your guests – literally. Arva takes a larger piece of injera and scoops up a hefty portion. This is called a gursha (a mouthful), and should be large enough to be just that, the bigger the more hospitable. It’s not polite to refuse and Negar, who is chosen, says she ‘feels the love’, opens her mouth wide and receives it graciously. Trying to quash my British sense of reserve, I attempt to do the same so my neighbour can feed me; I feel very vulnerable but also honoured. It’s a generous and intimate gesture. I don’t do so well with extending that same hospitality, my nerves overcome me, and my method could be described a quick, clumsy shove. I am so embarrassed and concerned for my poor recipient; Oh the shame, I’ve failed in my hostly duties.

We finish the meal with coffee poured from the slender spout of a traditional jebena (coffee pot) served with a bowl of popcorn. Some itan (Ethiopian incense) is burned alongside it in a girgira (a clay bowl filled with some hot coals), which adds to the whole sensory experience.

Outside on the pavement, before we all head off, Mufaddal whips out a basket of Dadar Gulung. These are thin pancakes, vivid, bright green in colour due to the pandan leaf juice in the batter, rolled around a filling of coconut and palm sugar. After my evening without implements I have no problem picking up one of these with my hands and munching it before heading off home on the metro.

Coffee, popcorn and incense at an Ethiopian coffee ritual

When Arva was a trainee management consultant in New York, she went for dinner at a very smart French restaurant with her boss. He saw her freeze at the prospect of navigating the rows of cutlery and glasses, and joked that he needed his wife there to help him (to put her at ease). While knife and fork etiquette doesn’t phase me one bit, I had started the evening ready for a challenge and was taken way outside my comfort zone.

At the beginning of the tour, we all wrote down something that we felt comfortable eating with our hands. Mine was ‘soldiers’ of toast for dipping into a soft-boiled egg.  By the end of the evening, my journey of discovery had led to a great deal more than sticky fingers.


So how do you feel about eating with your hands? Is it comforting or appalling?

Video highlights of the tour here.

Eating with your hands

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Find out more:

Frying Pan Adventures has a range of different food and culture tours in Dubai, in parts of the city that few tourists and newer expats visit. Some of my most memorable experiences have been on with them. This one was part of their special calendar of tours designed for their Sufra membership community who get booking priority and a discounted rate.

The tour was in collaboration with Dubai Design Week looking at the tools we eat with and what happens when deprived of them.

More about an Ethiopian coffee ceremony on their podcast here.

How the Ethiopian tradition of feeding people came about.

A blog dedicated to Sudanese food and recipes.

Arva’s guide to the best pani puri in Dubai.

  1. November 16, 2018 5:08 pm

    I’m happy to eat with my hands thought I’ve never been as neat at it as my parents who grew up doing so. But I love hands on eating and I love communal dishes. This tour is EXACTLY the kind of food tour I love!

    • November 20, 2018 11:24 am

      You would absolutely love this Kavey. And I’m sure you are much neater than me tackling a biryani by hand!

  2. November 16, 2018 11:16 pm

    Can’t do it. I will rather go hungry. Of course, if the food is not liquid (chicken leg, even covered in the sauce, a piece of steak, a piece of fish, etc.) – no problems whatsoever. But beans, rice, stews – no, not my thing. Visited Ethiopian restaurant once – we went out of our way to somehow acquire (beg for) a spoon…

    • November 20, 2018 11:26 am

      Well at least you’re honest – and i hear you as I have in-built resistance to this, but the look of the delicious food and hunger spurred me on! Do you eat a burger with cutlery? That’s something I find quite odd tbh

      • November 20, 2018 3:38 pm

        so first, I need to say that I should’ve commented on the communal sharing you described in your post, as that was a beautiful part – you surely had a great experience.
        When it comes to eating with hands, I guess I didn’t express myself clearly. I’m all fine with “finger foods” – dipping carrots into the hummus or using a slice of pita bread to pick up some tahini. I definitely use hands with pizza, burgers, and I will gladly steal a piece of kabob with my hands. But – picking up rice by hand, or using that ultra-soft bread to get almost liquid Ethiopian dishes is not something I can do.
        By the way, the coffee ritual at the Ethiopian restaurant, starting with the roasting of a few beans on the open fire, was definitely an experience – and the coffee was great.

  3. November 18, 2018 11:49 pm

    This all looks and sounds great, I’d love to go on this tour. I know what you mean about eating with your hands, we’re so conditioned to using cutlery, it can be strange at first. Also, loved Ethiopian food when we ate it in Melbourne (where surprisingly, there’s a big Ethiopian community) and would love to eat more of it soon.

    • November 20, 2018 11:27 am

      I find it’s a way to understand other people’s cultures by being immersed in one aspect. How interesting that there is a big Ethiopian community in Melbourne. I hope to visit one day so will seek it out.

  4. Sally Pederson permalink
    November 20, 2018 1:11 pm

    I enjoy eating with my hands. The only thing I would be concerned about is the cleanliness of other people’s hands. If I see them wash them with soap or sanitizer, then no problem. If not, I’m not what or how much I would eat.

    • November 20, 2018 3:06 pm

      Oh I get that entirely Sally – and this tour had copious amounts of wet wipes on hand so we could all relax.


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