In 2020, Eat With Your Hands

January 7, 2020

In 2020, I’m going to encourage you to do something: eat with your hands.

As parents to two young children, Beth and I often find ourselves reminding the boys about polite table manners. Use a napkin, say please and thank you, etc. We’re trying to build good habits so they don’t turn into slobbering adults at the table.

But eating with their hands? This is where it does get a little confusing.

Because there are those times when we’ll gently remind, “Please use your fork.” (I have uttered this phrase to a 7-year-old trying to eat rice one grain at a time.) But then there are plenty of times we DO eat with our hands: hot dogs, cheeseburgers, fried chicken, sandwiches, tacos, wings, corn on the cob. We’re totally used to it. “Get right in there and get your hands dirty! Don’t worry about toppings spilling out. It’s okay if your fingers are sticky and if you’ve got barbecue sauce or ketchup all over your face. That’s half the fun.”

In some ways, though, we’re not used to eating with our hands, not in the way many other world cultures do. And while I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on world cuisine – I’m still eagerly learning it myself – we’ve discovered that many international restaurants are the best place to learn to eat with your hands.

Many cultures around the world prioritize eating with your hands, often by tearing pieces of bread – naan, dosas, pita, injera, roti, it goes by many names and types – and scooping up stews and sauces.

For Beth and I, our first real experience eating with our hands came in 2001, when a college friend took us to an Ethiopian restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called Little Africa. Little Africa has since become our favorite restaurant ever (if you’re into those types of rankings).

We always order tea and a combination platter; the joy is introducing friends and family to the place, gathering over a sometimes massive, table-filling plate to rip and tear and dip and scoop, sometimes reaching over each other (which normally we’d say is rude, but in this case – go for it!).

Many of these dishes are also served from communal plates, so not only are you reaching in with your hands, you’re reaching toward your dinner mates. Which means you have to, and get to, look them in the eye, interact, talk, share.

When we’re in Columbus, we hit up Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant and Addis Restaurant. You can order individual plates, but we always, always go for a platter, mostly of vegetarian fare. We leave the exact makeup to our server, following their suggestions.

We’re also enjoying getting to know Somali fare, which given its proximity to Ethiopia, follows similar customs and dishes. Our favorite in Columbus is Hoyo’s Kitchen, which has a full-service restaurant on the northeast side and a new stall in the North Market. I highly suggest getting your fingers messy and ordering injera, the spongy flatbread, to go with your safari chicken or beef suqaar.

Aside from the delicious food you get to try, why should you eat with your hands?

  • You get to taste a bit of everything. Suffer from decision fatigue? Always worried you’ll order the wrong thing? Order as a group and eat with your hands. Problem solved!
  • There’s a value in the communal dish. Our tendency is to hoard our own food. We order giant platters then guard them with our knives and forks. Never forget how the table is a gathering place.
  • It’s fun to get a little messy, and you can always clean up afterwards.
  • The conversation is just like the food. It can get messy. Connecting with people takes work. It can be awkward. But it can be a lot of fun, and it’s always worth taking time to connect with others over a meal.

Perhaps one of the best places to practice eating with your hands, with all the challenges and delights of communal sharing, is a kamayan at Bonificio. These traditional Filipino dinners feature a full meal spread across the table on banana leaves, and then you dive in with your hands and eat to your heart’s content. They feature a full kamayan the last Monday of every month, then smaller customizable ones – called boodle nights – Thursday and Sunday evenings. You can also book private ones! Read more about it here.

That’s my challenge to you in 2020. Get a little messy. Try something new. Break the rules a bit. And take time to connect over a meal.

Some spots to eat with your hands in Columbus:

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I go by Dr. Breakfast, but in addition to restaurants and recipes, I write about family travel, breweries and distilleries, the arts, outdoor fun, and so much more.

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