How To Eat With Your Hands

I’ve learned a lot of things since I came to Oman but one thing I didn’t expect to learn was how to eat literally anything with my hands. For some reason it just never occurred to me that silverware wasn’t a necessity everywhere in the world. There’s no particular reason for eating with your hands, it’s just a part of the traditional culture and to be honest I’ve really come to appreciate the practice.

Firstly, it cuts down on things to clean up – at most you have to wash only a few spoons and plates. It allows you to really connect with your food; kind of one step further on the “eat local” spectrum, and it also helps with portion control. I’ve gotten a lot better but when I first got here I noticed it took me approximately twice to three times as long to eat the same amount with my hands as with a fork or spoon. Even now there’s just no way to eat rice at the same speed with your hands versus a spoon.

The funny thing is that I’ve gotten so used to not using utensils that I sometimes choose not to use them even if I’m presented with them. For example at lunch at school we used to comment on how glad we were that we got at least one meal a day where we didn’t have to eat with our hands. But now it’s not uncommon to see a few of us just skipping the forks and going at it the Omani way.

Family lunch

Family lunch

Dinner at my house. Usually we eat at a table but there were guests so the ground was easier to fit everyone.

Dinner at my house. Usually we eat at a table but there were guests so the ground was easier to fit everyone.

Similarly at weddings I always take pleasure in seeing my host family or other guests starting out with spoons but about five minutes in giving up and resorting to their hands. The image of grown women in gorgeous formal dresses and fancy makeup eating grilled chicken with their hands is endlessly amusing.

As a beginner it’s important to start with something easy to pick up like potatoes or salad. My first experience with it was on my second day in Oman at a traditional restaurant where everyone is seated on the floor and rice is served on a communal plate.  The difficulty factor is increased by having to share the space with a bunch of other clueless people. It definitely wasn’t the easiest way to learn but we were all inexperienced so it was a good place to practice.

Once you’ve mastered bigger foods then a good next step is rice or curry. The key to doing this successfully is eating multiple foods together. For example rice is much easier to manage when you eat it with something more solid like vegetables, meat or fish. Or even by adding yogurt to help the rice stick together and make it easier to pick up. For curry using breads is a must to mop up the sauce and it can also be used spoon-like to pick up things.

The only things that we don’t eat with our hands here is pasta and pizza, which makes absolutely no sense to me because besides sandwiches those are two of the very easiest things to eat with your hands.  It seems sort of ironically fitting though so I dutifully cut my pizza into small pieces and eat penne with a spoon.

If you’re up for it I would definitely recommend trying it out – you just have to be committed and it’s really not that hard! It can actually be a lot easier and also more fun. I mean why do you think kids are always trying to get out of using utensils?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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American Food…Arabic Letters

When I arrived in Oman I was immediately fascinated by how many foreign (particularly American and British) food products they have and also very excited to see all of the labels rewritten into Arabic script. The transliterations are sometimes slightly off but it’s fun to see what kinds of liberties the designers take with the letters in order to make them resemble the English logos.

I’ve been collecting pictures of especially cool ones for awhile and here are some of my favorites!

How To: Make Chapati

 

Chapati – a type of fried bread, tortilla-esque and the best food ever

Chapati, I quickly learned is a staple, and we eat it with almost every meal. Besides being just delicious it is also very useful because it can be used as a utensil to pick up those especially tricky foods. It actually isn’t an Omani food, the word chapati is Hindi but the version we eat has a Tanzanian spin because my family has roots there and we eat a lot African foods (more on that later).

The tricky part is rolling it out into a circle – the first few times I tried it were disasters and I think I ended up causing more work for my host mom. But I’ve gotten better over time and learned that it’s all about adding enough flour so the dough doesn’t stick. It really is harder than it looks though!

Step 1: In a bowl combine flour, water and ghee. Mix well

The container of ghee (clarified butter) in our kitchen

The container of ghee (clarified butter) in our kitchen

Step 2: Portion out the dough and roll it into balls

Step 3: Take one ball and roll it out into a circle. Spread a small amount of oil in the middle and then cut down the middle, leaving a small section at the top attached.

My mom rolling out dough

My mom rolling out dough

Step 4: Take the two sides of the circle and pull them apart so they are in a straight line.

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Step 5: Starting at one end roll the dough in a spiral until you get to the end. Tuck the edge into the top of the spiral. Repeat with each ball

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Step 6: Once you have the spiraled dough, roll it back out into a circle. The spiral helps layer the dough and helps it to keep its shape.

Step 7: Place the circle in a pan with a little bit of oil. Using a spatula move the dough around so it cooks evenly

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Step 8: Once it starts to brown on the bottom side, flip it over, adding a bit more oil to the pan

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Step 9: When it is nicely browned on both sides, remove and set on a tray to cool.

The finished project!

The finished project!

Step 10: Enjoy!

Holiday Cheer

Any holiday away from home is naturally difficult but I think Thanksgiving was specifically engineered to make things harder for exchange students. At orientation we talked a lot about the initial “honeymoon phase” where everything is new and exciting and then what happens after that phase wears off – culture shock. Culture shock can have a number of symptoms, including irritability, anti-social behavior, fatigue and an unrelenting craving for Chipotle and it tends to set in once the excitement has died down and you’re left wondering how you ended up in this completely foreign environment. It varies by person but culture shock most commonly hits right around the two-month mark, also known as November, also known as Thanksgiving.  Add on to that the fact that all of your college friends will be at home having fun without you  (missing out on the fun is any teenagers absolute worst nightmare) and the thought of homemade stuffing and you have a perfect recipe for exchange student depression.

Its ironic though because Thanksgiving is also the one set time in the year that we make a special effort to recognize all the goods things present in our lives and to give thanks for those things that we don’t always acknowledge.  So as a culture shock afflicted teenager living in a faraway place it was a timely reminder of all I have both here and in the states to be thankful for. I live with an amazingly welcoming family, I’ve made life-long friends and I am experiencing an incredible culture in a way that few foreigners ever get to. I have also gained a new appreciation for air conditioning, become skilled at eating rice with my hands and learned insults in two new languages. Being forced to recognize all the positives is an extremely useful and productive exercise and makes all the small annoyances that build up to culture shock seem much more trivial.

Another factor here that helped ease the culture shock was a dinner held for all the American exchange students and their families at the Ambassadors house. Very few things help you forget what you’re missing at home faster than a personal invitation to dinner at the United States ambassadorial residence.  I introduced my host family to the wonders of stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. And although I didn’t try the turkey and gravy they reported to me that it was delicious.

Although it is still kind of sad to be away from home during this time of year, it is also a privilege to be able to spend it here with people who ordinarily would have no idea there was something special going on. Nothing will ever replace Thanksgiving at home (I did miss the ToFurkey that we usually have) but there is something very special about being able to share it with people who have never experienced it before.

At the dinner we sat with my friend’s host family and one of her sisters who, to our dismay, had up until now insisted that pie was nothing more than “stuffed cake”. To see her try apple pie and shyly admit that it was maybe “a little bit better” was absolutely priceless, and very nearly made up for the fact that there was no pecan pie.

My host sister, Zuwaina and me with Ambassador Holtz

My host sister, Zuwaina and me with Ambassador Holtz