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Finger Food in Four Cultures

Farmhouse Kitchen’s Lao Table engages the eyes as well as the hands.
Farmhouse Kitchen’s Lao Table engages the eyes as well as the hands.

Eat with the Hands for Practical, Intimate, Sensuous Meals

By Anna Mindess | Photos by Cynthia Matzger

Amod Chopra, owner of Vik’s Chaat in Berkeley, washes his hands and sits down with some guests. His divided metal tray, called a thali, holds a compartment of rich coconut chutney and another of sambar, a spiced vegetable stew. Balanced atop is a feathery light dosa (rice flour crepe) rolled into a long, elegant tube filled with a savory mixture of potatoes and onions.

With his right hand, Chopra deftly tears off a piece of dosa and uses it to pick up a bit of the potato and onion filling. He dips the bundle first in coconut chutney, then in sambar, and pops it into his mouth.

Here at Vik’s, the only available utensils are compostable sporks and spoons. But a glance around the cavernous, light-filled room reveals many diners eschewing that faux flatware for more adaptable tools: their fingers.

Right: Amod Chopra, owner of Vik’s Chaat demonstrates how to use the thumb to push a bite into the mouth. Left: Youngsters like Surya and Karthik Rajendran are naturals at eating with their hands.

Why eat with the hands? 

“It’s all about anticipation,” says Chopra. “The nerve endings in the fingers signal to the brain that I am going to start eating. Your senses are awakened, and you are much more connected to your food, unlike the separation you experience with knife and fork.”

There are practical benefits too, Chopra adds. “There’s no better way to make sure you don’t swallow a fish bone than to take the meat off the bones yourself.” One rule, prevalent in parts of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, is that the right hand is used for eating, while the left is reserved for hygiene.

As a guest reaches toward a huge puffy bread balloon, the restaurateur warns, “Careful, it’s hot.” He rips off the first piece of chole bhature, releasing a burst of steam, and his fingers let him know when the bite is cool enough to eat. With a piece of the ripped bread, he picks up a tiny cube of red onion along with a pickle and some saucy chickpeas.

Breads are a mainstay in Northern India, while rice is more common in the South. To eat a dish of fish with saffron rice, Chopra squeezes a piece of fish into a mound of rice, manipulates the bite until it rests on the edge of four fingers, and sweeps it toward his mouth, pushing it in with his thumb.

The word chaat in the restaurant’s name refers to Indian street food snacks often served on banana leaves. It means “lick,” and it is common to lick up the last drop of juice or gravy. “After they lick their hand,” Chopra says, “many people continue licking down the inside of their right forearm. This would happen even in the restaurant of a five-star hotel.”

“It gives me great joy to see people of all backgrounds eating with their hands here,” Chopra says. “We don’t have knives or forks. Hopefully, diners will give up on sporks and just use their hands.”

Lao Table, one of the showiest specialties offered at Farmhouse Kitchen, is a dining experience guests need to order in advance.

Lao Table at Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Restaurant

Chef Kasem Saengsawang, owner of Farmhouse Kitchen, learned to eat with his hands while growing up in northern Thailand. “I want to give my customers an experience that they never ever get anywhere else,” he says.

At Farmhouse Kitchen, the vibrantly hued Thai restaurant on Oakland’s Jack London Square, Chef Kasem Saengsawang’s staff artistically arranges more than a dozen dishes on an outdoor table covered with banana leaves. Crispy prawns perch atop a mound of pad thai noodles. There’s a tender hunk of braised short rib bathed in a bronze panang curry sauce, rice rolls, and crunchy fried chicken to dip in a pot of yellow curry. Called Lao Table, this generous meal is meant to be enjoyed with the hands and the eyes. Mangos carved into little diamonds are set among glistening fresh greens along with tiny bowls of dipping sauces, mounds of lavender rice, sprinkles of toasted coconut, deep fried sweet potato, and crispy rice. The table is strewn with pink and purple flowers.

“The important thing about eating with the hands is sharing with family and close friends, not worrying about using the right utensil. The point is conversation and intimacy,” says Saengsawang, who grew up in a small northern town in Thailand where Lao Table–style dining was most often enjoyed for family celebrations, New Years events, and birthday parties.

Sticky white rice is a mainstay, and Saengsawang says the trick is to wet your hand first so the rice won’t stick to your palm as you form it into a ball for picking up a piece of meat. A torn piece of roti bread might be used to select a bit of fried chicken that you dip in curry. A fresh cucumber slice can be used to scoop up some crab-fried rice, and a lettuce leaf can be rolled up with a bit of meat and some mint or dill: dip it in a sauce, and eat.

Saengsawang says that either hand can be used, but washing first is a necessity, often in a sink or tableside bowl. Farmhouse Kitchen provides a dish filled with flower petals, ginger, and ice for hand washing.

Intriguingly, this intimate, resplendent meal is not on Farmhouse Kitchen’s menu. Diners who request a Lao Table specify a date and number of guests (at least eight), and expect to pay around $85 per person for 14 to 18 dishes. Lao Table is more appropriate for a group of friends relaxing together than a formal occasion like a corporate event.

“If you eat this way, you will understand [our culture] from your hand and your heart,” Saengsawang says.

Filipino Kamayan: A Cultural Tradition in Transition

Filipino culture also shares a long tradition of eating with the hands in the feast called kamayan (in Tagalog). But more than 300 years of Spanish colonization made an indelible impact on that aspect of this tradition.

Aileen Suzara, an East Bay food educator, activist, and cook, runs a project called Sariwa (it means “fresh”), which helps Filipino Americans reconnect with healing foods from their heritage. “I think everyone has their own story about their relationship to kamayan, whether actively practicing it because it was passed on, relearning it, or even if it’s a distant or severed relationship because of colonization, assimilation, and class struggle.”

This complex history is evident at a community event called “Kamayan, Eat with your Hands, Dance with your Feet,” sponsored by Filipino Advocates for Justice at Berkeley’s Ed Roberts Center in May. The long tables are set with forks and spoons and there’s nary a banana leaf in sight, but it’s an opportunity to learn about this evolving cultural practice.

Cynthia Bonta (right) explains that for generations, the Spanish colonial influence led to fork and spoon for those who lived in the city, while kamayan was more the way the farmers ate.
Jed Tabernero (left) is part of the younger generation of Filipinos reclaiming the cultural practice of kamayan.

 

Cynthia Bonta, an 82-year-old community organizer, educator, and leader in the Filipino social justice movement, explains that while she was growing up in the Philippines, college professors, like her parents, and other city dwellers used fork and spoon, while kamayan was the preferred eating method of farmers.

By contrast, Jed Tabernero, a 26-year-old financial analyst who was also born in the Philippines, says his family always ate with their hands, and he didn’t think much about it until he moved to the Bay Area. “It’s the only way to eat fish,” he says as he pushes a clump of rice and fish into his mouth with his thumb.

According to Celeste Noche, a Filipino American photographer and writer (quoted from Food52), “When the Spanish came and introduced their customs to the Philippines, they saw indigenous locals eating by hand as barbaric—as was often the case and justification of most Western countries colonizing foreign land. And although the Spanish have been gone for more than 200 years, the mentality of western superiority lingered, tainting the perception of what is proper and respectable—especially for older generations.”

Younger East Bay Filipinos are making kamayan part of their branding. An example is the Kam-met Kollective, a project of Oaklanders Nico Dacumos and Sunshine Velasco. At their August vegan kamayan pop-up at Reem’s in Oakland, they arrayed banana leaves with vegan versions of traditional fish balls, lumpia, pinakbet, and dinardaraan using ingredients such as tofu, black beans, and chocolate alongside the rice and vegetables. “Eating with the hands has no rules, just share and be happy,” says Velasco.

Another Filipino pop-up with kamayan options is currently becoming a brick-and-mortar venue. Acclaimed chefs Jan Dela Paz and Bobby Punla have been having a celebrated run at Emeryville’s Hometown Heroes Sports Bar, but they are currently aimed at opening their new restaurant, Likha, in Oakland. These millennial chefs, who call their fare “modern Filipino food inspired by tradition,” have years of experience working in fine dining at Michelin-starred restaurants. “Our plan is to offer kamayan once a month or by request,” says Punla.

“We want to go back to the ways of indigenous people, decolonize, and do what they did from the beginning,” adds Dela Paz. “No rules really. Use either hand, as long as it’s clean.”

Fonio, Fufu, Rice, or Baguette?

Warm, richly fragrant aromas of tangy peanut butter fill La Cocina’s kitchen in San Francisco as Nafy Flatley stirs a big pot of maafe, a golden-hued African stew. In Senegal, where Flatley grew up, such stews are usually eaten with the hands, picked up using rice, fonio (a delicate grain reminiscent of quinoa), fufu (balls of thick, cooked yam), or baguette (showing the influence of French colonizers).

“My grandmother always said when you eat with your hands, everything connects,” says Flatley. She contrasts this to using a fork, “a cold thing,” and adds that it’s okay to lick your fingers after each bite.

“After washing the hands, one rule is absolute: Only the right hand can be used to touch the food,” she says, adding that left-handed children often have a hard time with this. She recalls her grandmother hitting her left hand so hard it made her cry and she couldn’t finish her meal.

Nearing the end of the meal, Flatley moves her fingers in a small circular movement on the plate to pick up every last tiny grain. “Eating with hands tastes better because of the personal connection to your food,” she says.

You can meet Flatley and enjoy her food on January 26, 2020 when she cooks a dinner featuring Senegalese dishes in Emeryville for Slow Food East Bay. You can also taste her Teranga trademarked juices and energy bars made from the fruit, seeds, and leaves of the nutrient-dense baobab tree when she demos them at both Berkeley Bowl locations.

A successful graduate of La Cocina, Flatley is featured in their cookbook, We Are La Cocina, which includes a version of the following recipe. Sometime this spring, Flatley’s Teranga kiosk, featuring West African food and drinks, will become one of seven women-owned businesses at the new La Cocina Municipal Marketplace at 101 Hyde Street in San Francisco’s Mission district. When her kiosk there opens, Flatley plans to serve this special stew, saying: “Here is your plate of maafe. We do have spoons and forks and knives, but if you like, I can show you how to eat it with your hands.” ♦

Anna Mindess writes about food, culture, travel, and immigrants’ stories for AFAR, Fodor’s, KQED’s Bay Area Bites, Berkeleyside, and Oakland Magazine. She was awarded the 2018 AFJ award for Best Food Essay for her story about Berkeley’s refugee-run 1951 Coffee Company. She also works as a sign language interpreter. See her visual take on the world on Instagram @annamindess. You can find her stories at annamindess.contently.com.

San Francisco–based freelance photographer Cynthia Matzger has worked as a television and film director and is a member of the Directors Guild of America. Her feature-length documentary about a Yurok Tribe elder is housed at the Smithsonian Museum. She is passionate about photographing awe-inspiring people whose work makes a positive impact in the Bay Area. cynthiamatzger.com

Nafy Flatley demonstrates how to pick up a bite of her spiced stew using a small grain called fonio.
Nafy Flatley demonstrates how to pick up a bite of her spiced stew using a small grain called fonio.

Nafy Flatley’s Vegetable Maafe

It’s easy enough to make a delicious version of maafe from common supermarket ingredients, but if you are looking for adventure, try searching out baobab and cassava. Nafy Flatley sells her Teranga brand products (including baobab and moringa) online at terangajuice.com and at her La Cocina Municipal Marketplace kiosk when it opens in San Francisco this spring. Or pay a visit to Mandela Grocery Cooperative in West Oakland for baobab. Cassava (aka yuca, yam, or manioc) is available at Berkeley Bowl and many small neighborhood markets.

Serves 6 to 10

½ cup organic creamy style peanut butter (Choose a brand with no sugar added.)
3 cups broth or water, separated
1½ tablespoons vegetable oil, separated
1 red onion, 1-inch dice
1 bell pepper, stem and seeds removed, 1-inch dice
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
2 cups diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
1 teaspoon fish sauce (omit for vegan/vegetarian version)
1 bay leaf
2 cups diced sweet potato
1 cup diced turnip or white potato
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced cassava (see headnote)
2 teaspoons sea salt plus more to taste
Cracked black pepper to taste
1 orange habanero (optional), whole, stem on
6–10 whole okra pods (optional)
Lime or lemon juice or apple cider vinegar (optional)
1 tablespoon baobab powder (see headnote)
4 cups baobab leaves (can substitute spinach, kale, or moringa leaves)
Diced yellow or orange bell pepper and cilantro sprigs for garnish

Combine the peanut butter with 1 cup broth or water and stir to dissolve into a smooth paste.

In a large saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat and add the diced onion and bell pepper. Sauté until soft but not browned, about 3 minutes. Add the minced garlic and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the tomato paste, stirring to evenly coat the vegetables. Continue cooking until the mixture turns brick red, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes with their liquid. Stir and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any stuck bits. Allow the sauce to come to a simmer.

Stir in the peanut butter mixture and the remaining broth or water. Add the tamarind paste, fish sauce, and bay leaf. Let simmer, covered, over low heat until slightly thickened, about 30 minutes. Stir frequently to keep from burning.

Add the sweet potato, turnip (or white potato), carrots, and cassava. Season with salt and black pepper and let cook until vegetables are just tender, about 12 to 15 minutes. Note that the sauce will be thick, but you can adjust with additional broth or water according to taste.

Add the habanero to the stew 5 minutes before it’s finished, so things don’t get too spicy if the stem comes off by accident. Meanwhile, heat the remaining vegetable oil in a separate pan and sauté the okra (if using) for about 2 to 3 minutes, adding a squeeze of lime or lemon juice or a splash of apple cider vinegar. Add to the stew along with the baobab powder (if using) and baobab leaves (or spinach, kale, or moringa leaves). Stir and remove stew from heat. Season with more salt if necessary and serve over rice, couscous, fonio (a delicate grain reminiscent of quinoa), or fufu (balls of thick, cooked yam). Garnish with diced yellow and orange bell peppers and cilantro sprigs.

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