Savoring Food – What I learned from Ethiopia by Hannah Gorman

As a child, every food is finger food. Cereal, vegetables, pasta: if you can pick it up, it’s fair game. But at a certain point, your parents bring in the utensils. Forks, spoons, knives or chopsticks are introduced as the proper vehicles for food, and who are we to object? But even though we may finish our meals with less food on our hands and faces, we sacrifice something perhaps much more important than cleanliness. We are distancing ourselves from our food.

We feel our food with our lips and our tongues; we smell it as it travels past our noses; we taste it briefly as we chew. But there is something to be said for really feeling our food. When we are constantly flipping through TV channels, reading the newspaper, or making phone calls during our lunch break, we put mindful eating on the back burner.

Ethiopian food is always eaten on thin, spongy bread called injera. The injera is the utensil. Each bite must be carefully crafted: wrapping the various sauces, vegetables, and other delectable toppings in a blanket of bread. Eating with your hands takes skill, as I quickly learned during my time there. Too much sauce and the roll of injera will disintegrate in your hand. Too little and you will be overwhelmed by the tangy taste of the bread. The learning curve was slow, but one thing I promptly discovered was the added dimension my food took on when I touched it. I could feel the difference between blended chickpeas and stewed lentils; mushrooms and onions. Every bite took thoughtful preparation, which gave me the time to contemplate what I was eating. I anticipated the feeling of the food in my mouth, not just the taste and the smell. I would crave certain foods not just for their unique taste, but for their unique texture as well. I gained satisfaction from each well-crafted bite: a type of satisfaction I could never achieve from a forkful of food, hastily prepared and consumed.

Gursha is the Ethiopian practice of feeding another person. The intimate connection with food that is forged by removing utensils becomes more intimate still when it is shared between people. The care put into wrapping a bite of injera is filled with selfless compassion because it is for the sole benefit of another person. Depositing a bite of food into another person’s mouth is a tangible gift of sustenance, one which has become exceedingly rare. In the age of multi-tasking, this intimacy associated with our food has all but disappeared. Aside from the experience of a parent feeding a child, eating has in many ways become distant and mindless. It has become individual and largely reduced to an act of necessity, or worse, mere habit. So drop the fork, and put away that knife. Turn off the television during meals. Open up all of your senses to the delightful experience of eating.