After a lovely cultural event we all (a group of 10) stepped into an Ethiopian restaurant. A kitchen I had not experienced before. After ordering, our food was served on, one huge round metal plate from which we were to eat together with our hands.
I was taken aback, not because of having to eat with my hand, which is common in my culture in Nepal. But the fact that we were expected to eat for the same plate! My Nepali cultural dilemma hit hard. On one hand, eating from the same plate is one of the most common dietary social customs in Ethiopia.
On the other hand, a custom that is totally absolutely not done and contradictory to my Nepali culture. As I have been raised with the believe that once I start eating, whatever is on my plate along with my hand or cutlery that I have used are only mine to use. As these have become ‘juto’, meaning impure or contaminated and cannot be use to either serve food from the main serving dish or form someone else’s plate.
Sign of love
The Ethiopian culture of eating form one plate is a sign of love. This is true in the Nepali custom as well but only between married couples.
Absolutely not done
In the Nepali custom, one has to use the serving spoon to serve oneself form the main serving dish. If you, even by mistake, use your own, used spoon, then you will be expected to eat all the food yourself. As no one will want that ‘juto’ food anymore. In the same way you must not eat form one another’s plate either.
A foreign writer once wrote about how he, after trekking in the mountains the whole day finally arrived at dusk to a place where he was allowed to stay the night. The lady of the house took hours to prepare a meal on firewood. Then just as the meal was almost done, she was ready to dump the whole meal and start all over again because, her child who had been playing with a spoon in his mouth accidentally dropped the spoon into the pot!
I have tried to find the origin of this culture in Nepal. Apart for the hygienic reason, I have not found any other reason to its origin. It is logical that not sharing or eating the food that someone else has eaten can prevent the spreading of some diseases. My parents always said, that they would rather take whatever disease they might have, to their grave than to pass it on to the next generation or to other, as an explanation to this custom.
This may be difficult to swallow, but once such a mistake has been made, there is no way for rectifying the situation. Does this mean that there will be no forgiveness if you as a non Nepali should make this mistake while eating? It is not a matter of forgiving. Your mistake will be immediately forgiven, in the sense that none will take offence of your honest mistake. But that does not mean that you can rectify the situation and everyone starts eating happily form the contaminated meal. You will either be expected to eat up all that you have contaminated, or it will be dumped into the garbage.
The only way to spare yourself and your host of such an embarrassing situation, is to be very aware of what you do while eating together.
The culture line
I always warn my non Nepali guests about this before we start eating, which helps them to avoid such embarrassing situations.
At the Ethiopian restaurant I asked for a separate plate. I must admit that this is a cultural aspect where I myself cannot cross the line. It runs in my veins and is an integral part of me, which makes it extremely difficult to adapt in any form or manner.
So do you have a cultural line that you cannot cross? Would love to know, please do share in the comment below.