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article imagePhoto essay: Yoruba dining etiquette 101. Eating with the fingers Special

By JohnThomas Didymus     Dec 5, 2012 in Food
Ibadan - In some parts of the world, eating a meal with your fingers is considered vulgar or at best a concession in informal situations. In Nigeria, however, favorite dishes must be eaten with the fingers because they just don't taste right eaten with cutlery.
(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 with gbegiri, or better still, abula stew.
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.
My friend and I visit Iyadunni  bukateria.
My friend and I visit Iyadunni "bukateria."
image:133724:5::0
 Alhaja Iyadunni International Food Canteen (AIIFC): Now Open Executive Suite.  (They are only bragg...
"Alhaja Iyadunni International Food Canteen (AIIFC): Now Open Executive Suite." (They are only bragging!)
image:133725:5::0
Iyadunni Food Canteen is  Five-Star  by the standards of local  bukaterias.  The typical  bukateria ...
Iyadunni Food Canteen is "Five-Star" by the standards of local "bukaterias." The typical "bukateria" is shack rudely knocked together for a semblance of privacy
image:133726:5::0
 Serve yourself
"Serve yourself"
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Lafun and okra stew
Lafun and okra stew
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Lafun  made from cassava flour  is also known as  white amala.
Lafun, made from cassava flour, is also known as "white amala."
image:133729:5::0
The author s dinner  a plate of  black amala  made from yam flour  served with apon stew and stockfi...
The author's dinner, a plate of "black amala" made from yam flour, served with apon stew and stockfish. Amala is the specialty dish in Ibadan.
image:133741:6::0
 ...you proceed with your index and middle fingers digging into the paste while your thumb works the...
"...you proceed with your index and middle fingers digging into the paste while your thumb works the morsel into an adhesive ball... Your fourth finger is left more or less idle while the fifth little finger is retracted into a crook."
image:133730:4::0
 ...the thumb works the morsel into an adhesive ball...
"...the thumb works the morsel into an adhesive ball..."
image:133731:4::0
Because the stew has a runny consistency  he uses his thumb to make a depression in the bolus into w...
Because the stew has a runny consistency, he uses his thumb to make a depression in the bolus into which he scoops the stew.
image:133733:4::0
He uses his thumb to make a depression in the morsel and then scoops the liquid stew into it.
He uses his thumb to make a depression in the morsel and then scoops the liquid stew into it.
image:133735:5::0
He raises the morsel to his mouth taking care not to spill the stew.
He raises the morsel to his mouth taking care not to spill the stew.
image:133734:5::0
The morsel of food transits to final destination
The morsel of food transits to final destination
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He pauses to make sure the soup is safely held in the bolus.
He pauses to make sure the soup is safely held in the bolus.
image:133737:5::0
Note that he is careful not to reveal the inside of his mouth as etiquette dictates. Note also how h...
Note that he is careful not to reveal the inside of his mouth as etiquette dictates. Note also how he bunches the tip of his fingers together barely touching his mouth with them.
image:133738:4::0
Having transported the food safely into his mouth  the withdrawal phase commences
Having transported the food safely into his mouth, the withdrawal phase commences
image:133739:4::0
The still image fails to capture his motion at this point. Because the stew is slimy okra  he  winds...
The still image fails to capture his motion at this point. Because the stew is slimy okra, he winds his bunched fingers in a quick circular motion to cut off any part of the slimy stew that draws out as he withdraws his fingers from his mouth. He executes the procedure neatly and almost flawlessly. An inexperienced diner would make a mess of a plate of okra eaten with the fingers.
image:133740:4::0
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