Saturday, July 3, 2010

Pudding Spoons and Forks

"It was remarkable to think how different were Kikuyu lives from our own, and surprising that they found our ways wholly arbitrary, and forgot that salt, mustards, and pepper pots should all be grouped together in two clusters on the table, and that pudding spoons should point in one direction and forks in another. Europeans rarely questioned their own customs; what they did was right and civilized, what others did was savage and stupid. No doubt all people think like this about their own habits. The Kikuyu probably accounted for most of ours as a form of magic." From The Mottled Lizard, by Elspeth Huxley
One could apply Elspeth Huxley's observation to many facets of life but those do include table manners and eating customs.

Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family I was not exposed to a formal Western meal until I was a senior in high school attending a dinner for scholarship applicants at the upscale Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. I still recall vividly the confusion, awkwardness, and embarrassment I felt at facing an array of forks, knives, and spoons that I had no idea what to do with. On that occasion, from a certain perspective, I could have been regarded as rather uncivilized and stupid.

In Tanzania it's very common to eat with your hands, no cutlery required. That being the case, it's also expected to wash your hands before eating. In homes and in some restaurants someone will bring water, soap, and a washbasin to each guest, both before and after the meal. Then there is the custom of using your right hand only, avoiding the left hand as much as possible. This is due to the left hand being seen as unclean, which is very literally true if it is used for certain, ahem, bodily functions.

I don't really like to eat with my hands. Doing so is fine for some foods such as sandwiches, cookies, and many kinds of dim sum. But if the food is at all wet, gooey, or oily, I immediately feel like my hands are messy and dirty. Really, the only sensible way to eat is with chopsticks. However, they require a magical dexterity that people beyond the pale acquire with difficulty.

[The photo is of our colleague Geofrey having lunch in the teachers' room. He is eating beans, greens, and ugali, a doughy staple made from corn meal.]



  1. I have never heard of ugali - is it like a tortilla? I think it will take time to feel comfortable eating with your hands - maybe the ugali is the key to successful eating in Tanzania. I remember eating an Ethiopian meal that featured their staple, injera - it was not familiar to me and took me a while to get used to.

  2. Ugali is not at all a bread. At first glance it looks like mashed potatoes, but the color is almost pure white (at least the way it is made around here) and the consistency is very firm.

    Here's one description: "Ugali is an East African dish ... of maize flour (cornmeal) cooked with water to a porridge- or dough-like consistency. It is the most common staple starch of much of Eastern and Southern Africa."

    It's pretty easy to ball up a glob of ugali and dip it into sauce or use it to pick up greens or shredded cabbage or whatever it is served with. I just don't like eating with my hands -- and I admit that it's entirely a matter of what you are used to. If I live in Tanzania long enough, I'll get used to it. 8-D

    I looked up injera also and found this: "Injera ... is a pancake-like bread made out of teff flour. It is traditionally eaten in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia ... and Yemen ..."

  3. Ugali iz from maize floor
    The name is originally from Tanzania
    We eat everyday