The Ethiopian Meal

Eating Indian food can be a messy business if you eat it like Indians do. That's because, in traditional Indian culture, you eat with your fingers.

The Indian-born film producer Ismail Merchant, who worked with the American director James Ivory, kept down costs during the production of his films by preparing some meals himself. Yet despite his many years in America - before his death, in 2005, he lived for decades in upstate New York - Merchant continued to eat his Indian food in the traditional way.

Ethiopians, too, eat with their fingers, as do many other cultures, in one way or another. But more than a millennium ago, Ethiopians found a way to put something between flesh and food.

It's called injera, a spongy flatbread made in round pieces of about 12 to 20 inches in diameter. The injera covers a large round plate or tray, and the cook places the various juicy dishes on top of it. Revelers then tear small portions of injera from another large piece and use it to grab some food.

In the best of cases, there are some rules. First, you should only use your right hand when you tear off pieces of injera to use for picking up your morsels. It takes a bit of practice to learn how to manipulate your thumb and first two fingers for the task. Once you've torn off your piece of injera, you wrap it around a portion of food and form a sort of mini-dumpling between your thumb and fingers. The injera should be the only thing that your fingers touch.

Then - and here's where it gets tricky - you should never let your fingers touch your lips when you eat. Just place the food inside your mouth without contact.

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ęCopyright 2010 by Harry Kloman