When I moved to Qatar in 2005, my friends organized a welcome feast in my honor . They wanted me to experience eating a rice-based dish cooked in the desert and eaten with the hands.
On the menu, Kabsa, a traditional dish made of rice cooked with lamb, chicken and an array of spices. A huge platter with a mountain of Kabsa sat in the middle of the table. While I naively waited for someone to distribute plates, knifes and forks for everybody, those never came. My hosts were all already seated, and with a unanimous motion, they started eating with their right hands.
I sat there, eyes wide, confused and shocked at the same time.
“Come on you can do it! Will you just grab it?” yelled one of my friends.
“No, I can’t do it” I answered anxiously. I did not know how to just dig into that steaming pile of rice.
I had heard about Bedouin eating habits, but at 22, I had not discovered yet my passion about culinary exploration, which explained my reluctance.
I guess I was set on the right track that day… I put all the rules of table etiquette that I was brought up with, behind me, gathered my courage, and started caressing the warm rice gently, hoping that I would have the guts to actually grab it as easily as they did. I took a deep breath, and dug into the glowing mountain of food staring at me. I grabbed a handful of rice with my right hand and exerted pressure with my palm and fingers. The grease made the rice stick together into a ball which I pushed into my mouth with my thumb.
Surprisingly, a fulfilling sensation emerged. I have never had such a close contact with food. There was a rich taste of seasoned rice that left a hot and spicy finish when I swallowed. I quickly mastered the procedure and started enjoying, feeling liberated from the constraints of what I thought were proper table manners.
The picture above was taken on another day, when we sat on a table in the desert. We actually used to eat the traditional dish on the floor, sitting around the big platter, barefoot and cross-legged.
From that day on, I became an addict of intense meal experiences, and started traveling the world looking for those and learning about local cultures through their cuisine. Qatar was just the beginning…
**An edited version of this post was also published in Physical Equilibrium Newsletter in New York City.