Yemisi Aribisala is a Nigerian essayist, writer and food memoirist. Her first book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex, and the Nigerian Taste Buds, won the John Avery Prize at the André Simon Book Awards 2016. Here she takes an in-depth look at the wonderful, underestimated art of eating with your fingers in Nigerian food.
From bowl to lips
One day in a buka on the Ọbáfẹ́mi Awólọ́wọ̀ University campus, there was a woman eating a bowl of gari and soup. By the time I sat down, I could not look away from the lone diner. Nor have I ever forgotten the stretched minutes I spent watching her move food from the bowl to her lips.
I can still picture the fingers on her right hand – her index and middle fingers going into the bowl, her thumb leisurely smoothing the morsel over. She picked up just enough food to feed an infant. It was as if, rather than preparing the swallow-and-soup for her mouth, she was consoling the bits of food with soft strokes before the ascent to her mouth. Her fourth finger was elegantly unemployed. Her little finger was not only idling as well, it was held up in the most elegant of crooks, like a finishing flourish to the hand.
Perhaps she had a companion who had gone off to the bathroom, or someone was hiding behind the grimy strung bead curtains – watching her for kicks. It was the most incongruous of scenes in Old Buka, hours after lunchtime when the rough functionality of the buka buildings were even more highlighted: benches, bare tables, gritty floors, spills, and the smell of smouldering firewood… and this beautiful woman who looked like she was superimposed on the scene.
Her facial expression matched her eating – detached, bored, uninterested. Eating not because she wants to, but dammit, because she has to. She wore her iro and buba with potent poise, her gele was perched on one side of her head, and it was all just so wonderfully measured I wished I had a hidden video camera.
This was not posturing; it was sexy. It was suaveness-in-my-backyard-thankyou. A strong argument against the disdain we surreptitiously ascribe to eating with fingers. She elevated the eating beyond skill to an alluring dance. She walked out of the room when she was done eating, and I was just at the beginning of my own meal, thoroughly distracted. My fingers were now free to try what hers had just stopped doing.
In greasy-, messy-, vain did I attempt to replicate the woman’s elegant mannerisms. I would, of course, not be caught dead using my fingers rather than a fork in public. Not because I have a misplaced belief that eating with your fingers is inferior to eating with forks and spoons, or that eating with one’s hands is vulgar, or ‘for natives’.
In fact, I am appalled at the notion that people are considered uncivilised or unattractive, or unlovable because they don’t know the difference between a fish fork and a salad fork. I’m not sure I know the difference. And I embrace the freedom to suck out nfi from their shells in public; this is very appropriate Nigerian etiquette.
No, I won’t eat with my hands in public because I would never live it down. I’ve never successfully mastered the skill of eating elegantly with my fingers. Picture oil running down my sleeve, three whole fingers or more going in and out of my mouth, and the smacking of lips and licking of fingers in desperate cleaning attempts. I envy relatives from outside Lagos’, who have no regard for the city’s obligatory urbaneness, who enact this powerful skill with ease and great appeal.
Two fingers working
When I looked at the two fingers doing the work of taking food to the woman’s mouth, there was absolutely no stain of palm-oil on the back of them. It was like all that she was doing was just pampering the gari with the soup, not dipping, not committing to the eating of the soup. Her fingers were immaculate, so much so that she could have carried on, and given you a handshake all at the same time. If she licked her fingers to keep them pristine, the action was lost in the flow of bowl to mouth. No, rather, she was so good, she never needed to lick anything. Her tongue stayed out of sight throughout the whole enterprise.
Mastering the manoeuvre
I think what made the biggest impression on me was the fact that the woman had taken the functionality of eating with fingers (and in Nigerian bukas it is 100% functionality. Hardly anyone goes to a buka to prim and pose and hardly anyone thinks of how eating with fingers is a skill way and above the use of metal implements) and successfully adapted it to the context of being out in public and making a stunning impression.
She had dressed it up, made it the drama we all self-consciously enact when we dress up, go out and eat in a fine-dining restaurant. Only, the effort we make in restaurants – the dance and elevation, priming and posing – is in celebration of some imported table and its etiquettes. It isn’t really our table, not our true protocols, and not our true culture.
Eating with a fork is child’s play compared to mastering that manoeuvre of fingers to lips. Not only in the method that food is being carried to the mouth, but in the flavor of the food itself; warmth and ‘evidence’ is generated by the skin, through the skin. The reassuring aroma of food and skin, and the distinct results of the mix, the way perfume smells different on every single person. Does the food agree with your system? Perhaps eating with fingers reveals this efficiently, whereas a fork is cold and indifferent.
Fingers absorb aromatics and carry them, sending auditory messages into the nostrils on the way. A fork does not feel heat nor discern texture, it has no sensory impact and, ultimately, it creates distance between the hand and the mouth, between the eyes and the hand. It makes the journey longer with the introduction of something alien and metallic. It is an inanimate object intruding on a sensual interaction. There are scientific claims that fingers have powerful nerve receptors linked to the digestive system and that handling one’s food releases digestive juices and enzymes, enhancing the meal.
It didn’t matter that this woman was in a dark buka on a university campus, that there was no audience, no bright stage for showing off. And how can one truly be accused of showing off if there is no audience. I might as well have been invisible. This was this woman’s elegant protocol, alone or in company, in the dark and in the light.
If gari and soup were being served at an international consulate dinner where forks, knives, spoons were absent, if we were asked to showcase that Nigerian art of eating with fingers, this woman would be the green-white-green flag flyer without contest. She would be the candidate of choice to carry it off with perfect grace. Not only has she learnt to eat skilfully and beautifully with her fingers – she had gone on to perfect the "ṣakara" of it.
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Nigerian-born author, Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà is best known for her thematic use of food to explore Nigerian stories. Her first book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups Sex & Nigerian Tastebuds uses Nigerian food as a literary substrate to think about Nigeria’s culture and society. Longthroat Memoirs won a Gourmand’s World Cookbook award, was shortlisted for the 2018 Art of Eating Prize and won the 2016 John Avery Prize at the Andre Simon Book Awards. Her second book, Wait! I’m Bringing a Bird Out of My Pocket, will be published by Chimurenga, Cape Town. She lives in London with her children. Her most recent articles on food and Nigeria can be read in @Popula: the alt-global magazine of news and culture.