(See photo story below
No full-blooded Nigerian raised at home considers that eating with the fingers is inferior to eating with forks and knives, or that it is vulgar. But mostly because the rules of etiquette in formal dining situations we have acquired from our British colonial masters dictate to us the opposite of what we really believe, you will see Nigerians at formal events with barely concealed longsuffering forbearance at the major inconvenience of eating a meal using those notoriously clumsy artifacts of European culinary culture... cut... cutler... darn it! They ruin the taste of good food! And why eat a meal with inflexible metal prongs when you could use incredibly flexible and sensitive natural prongs that add flavor, at no extra charge, to the meal.
An observant expat will sooner or later notice that his otherwise stiff-collared Nigerian friend would never miss an opportunity to duck down an alley for a meal at one of his favorite zero-star local eating joints, popularly called "buka," or more politely "canteens," where he can throw caution to the winds, roll up his sleeves, unbutton his collar, and yank off his tie; be, for a while, in his pristine elements, over a steaming bowl of la-afun
, or better still, abula
But what the expat will often miss, due mostly to the deceptive ease with which his friend eats with his fingers, while disdaining the habit of forks and knives, is the fact that eating with your fingers is a skill governed by strict rules of etiquette that the native diner violates at the risk of causing offense to his companions. You will almost never encounter a home-bred Nigerian violate the rules, because the skills and dexterity in keeping with dining etiquette are drilled into the average Nigerian from such an early age that most are not even aware of it until they have to talk about it.
The typical native Nigerian meal consists of a starchy and gummy paste made from yam, cassava or maize flour, served with meat or fish stew, consisting of vegetables and herbal spices that give off a powerful aroma designed to stimulate the appetite.
Typically, when you eat your starchy paste with a vegetable stew that has a relatively firm consistency, you proceed with your index and middle fingers digging into the paste while your thumb works the morsel into an adhesive ball that picks up its vegetable accompaniment with ease.
You are careful to make sure that only the tips of your index and middle fingers touch the paste and only the tip of your thumb touches the vegetable stew when you push it against the sticky paste. Your fourth finger is left more or less idle, while the fifth little finger is retracted into a crook, much like the wheels of an airplane folding in as it takes off.
A skilled diner can walk away from the dinning table without having to wipe his fingers with a napkin because he repeatedly uses the sticky paste to clean stew from his fingers each time he cuts the next morsel to dip in the soup. Rolling the morsel into a bolus with the fingers before dipping it into the stew also ensures that it does not stick to his fingers. Some fussy Ibo diners would actually keep a bowl of water beside them as they eat and dip their fingers into it for lubrication while rolling the morsel into a bolus.
But what happens when the stew has a fluid or slimy consistency, as western Nigerian Yoruba cuisine often prefers to the disapproval of their neighbors, some of whom have nicknamed them "the runny stew people?"
Everyone acknowledges that the most difficult type of meal to eat without getting your fingers soiled is one accompanied by a watery or slimy stew that tends to slick down the fingers. But woe betide the adult diner who dares allow the fluid fall as the law of gravity dictates.
The photographs below show a south-western Yoruba Nigerian go about the delicate task of a meal of lafun
, made from cassava flour, and a bowl of watery stew, with okra added for slimy viscosity.
The standard rules of engagement enumerated above must be modified in this unique situation. Typically you do not allow your fingers touch any part of your mouth while you eat, but when the stew has a runny or slimy consistency, this rule must be relaxed as the diner must ensure that the morsel goes into his mouth without soiling his lips, falling back into his plate, or soiling the front of his shirt, errors that are almost taboo as far as dinning etiquette is concerned.