I was probably not more than five years of age when my family was invited to a relative’s house for lunch in Nizwa, Oman. Three servants carried in a large communal plate of lamb and rice, placed it at the centre of the floor in the living room on top of a plastic sheet, and the guests circled around it to dine. The ambiance of the room was coated with the delicious scent of fresh meat, rice, and fresh yoghurt drink, and my tiny stomach grumbled. I could not wait to take a bite after a long morning spent playing outside in the narrow alleys of Nizwa while my mother conversed with our hosts.
In a uniform fashion, the guests sat on the floor with one leg folded, and with their right hands, using the thumb, index, and middle finger only, they pulled a piece of meat, rolled it in a rice ball, and placed it in their mouths. It looked so easy. Kids my age were doing it. I gave it a go, and the pieces of rice slid through my fingers and onto my dress. I blushed at my mishap, but thankfully, no one had noticed. I had not been taught to eat that way yet, having grown used to Western dining etiquette using utensils.
I quietly pulled myself up, ran to the kitchen across the hall, grabbed a fork and rushed back to satisfy my hunger. I squeezed myself back between two of the guests, and my fork dug in. The second I had done that, my mother tutted and motioned that I come sit next to her so that she could handfeed me. That was my first lesson of Arab dining etiquette. At a traditional Arab dining setting, one should eat with their right hand only, and there is no room for utensils at the dining setting.
Years later, unlike my siblings, I still had not mastered the art of eating with the three fingers of my right hand. What made matters more challenging was the fact that I was left-handed, and so my right one was not dominant. I envy my younger sister who could do so, so elegantly. I am still learning.
Though many may view hands-to-mouth eating as barbaric, it was and is still an important daily custom in the Arabian Gulf, the Middle East, parts of Asia, and Africa, with everyone from royals and aristocrats to common citizens eating that way, not only at home but also in traditional ceremonies, weddings, and large social gatherings.
While this custom dominates these parts of the world to this day and age, it was once a daily custom in the West and was prevalent in the royal courts of Europe and amongst the nobility, especially before the introduction of the fork as a table utensil in the 17th century.
Food: A Culinary History, edited by Massimo Montanari, Jean-Louis Flandrin, and Albert Sonnenfeld, looks at the dining customs of Europeans in medieval times . When a large piece of meat was set directly on a European dining table (sometimes on a platter), diners, including royal members, grabbed and tore at the meat with their bare hands. Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, by Charles Panati, states how in medieval times, common Europeans ate using their five fingers, while the nobles ate using only three: the thumb, index, and the middle finger, just like the Arabs, which was considered to be a sophisticated way of eating.
Ironically, table forks originated in the Middle East, with many studies indicating that it was first used in Persian royal courts as early as the 7th century. In about 1100 A.D., the forks travelled and appeared in the Tuscany region of Italy, where the clergy ridiculed their use and insisted that only God-made human fingers should touch the food. It was a few hundred years before forks came into wide use, first across continental Europe and then in the United States.
Though eating with one’s hand on a floor setting may seem far simpler at first sight than does sitting at a formal dining table with a collection of silverware from which to choose, it certainly does not mean that anything goes. There are a few rules to follow to keep in mind the next time you are dining with traditional Arabs:
- Remove your shoes
- Always allow the more senior members of the party to enter the room or be seated ahead of you.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before and after the meals. Hygiene is very important to Arabs, especially when it comes to food. If you are dining with Bedouins in the desert and water is scarce, then wipe your hands in the sand. Sand is often used as a substitute for water to purify one’s hands and body.
- Use your right hand only to eat. The left hand is never used, as it’s considered unclean and is used for elimination. The left hand should thus be kept at the side.
- Use your right hand when picking up or passing the food around
- Use the thumb, index, and middle fingers of your right hand to eat.
- Scoop the food using your right hand and right fingers.
- Keep in mind that at a traditional dining setting, men and women usually dine separately, unless they are close family members.
- Licking one’s hand is common and accepted after finishing the food.
Manar Alhinai is the Storyteller-in-Chief at Sekka.