by E. Garriga
There is no greater pleasure than to eat a delicious fritter such as bacalaítos (codfish fritters), o a piece of dulce de coco (coconut candy squares) you long for using your hands or remembering a scrumptious arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) cooked over a make-shift stove of three stones heated with coal or wood! I remember as a child visiting family in the countryside in Moca, Puerto Rico, and the best arroz con gandules we ate using our fingers. People would often say to eat “hasta chuparse los dedos,” meaning absolutely delicious when it was made over charcoal or wood sticks. The host would say “you don´t need a fork and a knife to enjoy this!” During those days people did not worry about bacteria, they just enjoyed the food. That was a different generation. Today we have to wash our hands thoroughly due to our contaminated environment. Many would regard eating with their fingers as having bad table manners.
Yet, hands are the most important tools in handling food. Since ancient times people have used their fingers to eat. Even today there are cultures in many parts of the world where people eat with their fingers as a daily routine. Closer to home, many restaurants serve dishes that require using our fingers. Some provide towels for guests to clean their hands before eating. Other places entice diners put their hands together over a bowl in the center of the table and pour water all at once. A recent article in The New York Times (1/18/2012, p. D3) notes that more and more restaurants encourage using hands instead of silverware. The article mentions Julie Sahni, instructor and cookbook author, raised in India and who says, “eating with hands evokes great emotion . . . inspires affection, sympathy and tenderness.” Other chefs encourage eating with their hands in the belief that it enhances the link between food and sensory decline due to protocols at upscale dining places. Many restaurants place a container with forks and knives in the center of the table for those who prefer those utensils.
However, in Western culture there are other rules to follow at the table, informally or not. We use fork, knife and a spoon in a formal setting but use our fingers to eat certain foods in a more casual one.
So, what do we eat with our fingers? Here is a sampling:
chips and dips
corn on the cob
fried chicken wings
fritters such as alcapurrias, almojábanas, arañitas de plátanos, arepitas,
bacalaítos, empanadillas, pastelillos, sorullitos, tostones*
some desserts such as dulce de coco, marrayos
some snacks, tapas, canapés, cocktail appetizers
Clearly, when a dish has sauce or is liquid it’s more practical to use a spoon. Sometimes we have a dilemma regarding what utensil to use, especially with desserts. The spoon makes sense for soft desserts such as flanes (custards), helados (ice cream) or any dessert accompanied with a syrup. The fork is normally used for cakes and fruits. Sometimes, when a cake has or is served with ice cream, then a spoon suits the need. When in doubt, follow your hostess, who’s sure to provide the requisite utensil in the hope that she knows what to use. ¡Enjoy!
*The fritter recipes can be found in Sabrosuras Boricuas and Homestyle Puerto Rican Cooking cookbooks, sold at Boricua.com.