"Don't play with your food!" is a common refrain many of us remember from our childhoods. But, as any child would ask, where's the harm in it? What was more fun than eating olives off all 10 fingertips, blowing bubbles in milk, trying to suck up Jell-O through a straw or using your fingers to lower a long strand of Top Ramen into your mouth without it getting stuck on your face?
Even as adults, playing with our food still brings a heightened experience to the act of eating. Whether it's food that naturally shuns the use of utensils or even something that requires many utensils, having to really "get into" what you're eating makes it a whole different experience from the usual meal. If you love food, living life without ever knowing the joy of dueling fondue forks or fingerfuls of injera dripping with spicy shiro wot would be a sad thing, indeed.
Food doesn't always work the ways table manners do, which is why running across foods you kind of have to play with, get your hands into, or use special tools to eat doesn't happen very often—but when it does, can an extra layer of joy to a meal.
If you happen to be able to squeeze yourself into a spot at the bar at Paper Dosa (551 W Cordova Road, 930-5521), you might want to get friendly with the people on each side of you as there is a strong possibility you may be "sharing" your meals. It's a slightly uncomfortable and mostly hilarious situation to find yourself in: knocking elbows with the person next to you as you try to wrangle your way through the eating of an item which extends far past the edges of your plate.
A dosa is a South Indian crepe made of fermented rice and lentils. The classic masala ($10) dosa comes rolled in a tube of sorts and is filled with warm, fragrant potatoes blended with turmeric, caramelized onions, whole red chiles, mustard seeds and cashews. This dosa is about two feet in length, with the filling rolled into the middle, leaving "wings" of crepe on the ends. My favorite method of eating this is to cut the dosa in half then use torn pieces off the ends to grab at the filling, dip in one of the accompanying sauces, then escort each delicious bit from fingers to mouth.
Another "hands-on" ethnic favorite is the hot pot. The hot pot is to Japan what fondue is to Switzerland, and any opportunity to cook, dip and smother your own food is one to be taken advantage of. Enter the shabu-shabu ($29) hot pot at Izanami (21 Ten Thousand Waves Way, 982-9304). Available at lunch only (make a reservation, as you need a specific table to accommodate all of the various cogs in this machine) this cook-it-yourself adventure begins with a pot of hot soy dashi and/or kombu broth (both, please!).
As the broths come to a boil, you're presented with the building blocks of this soup: a generous basket packed full with carrots, portobello mushrooms, fresh tofu, greens, bok choy and straw mushrooms. Meat-eaters can add chicken meatballs (tsukune) for $6 or thin-sliced Angus beef for $12. You then dump all the goods into the pot, stirring them around in the fragrant broth until cooked. A strainer spoon and ladle come in handy for transferring the goods to your plate, where they can be dipped in side sauces of ponzu or creamy sesame sauce. Once you've exhausted these, another basket arrives filled with both rice and wheat noodles. Again, they get dumped into the broth, now made even richer. End your shabu-shabu with a tasty bowl of ramen. It's messy. It's fun. It's delicious.
From dipping your own to building your own, la mozzarella ($14) at El Nido (1577 Bishops Lodge Road, 954-1272) can be so much fun to dig into, you may find yourself laughing more than eating. A long tray, similar to something you'd find at a booze tasting, arrives with glasses, each holding an ingredient for building your own crostini: spears of grilled bread, a rustic pomodoro, an elegant, peppery Arugula pesto, crispy garlic chips, what appears to be a glass of warm milk, and a pair of itsy-bitsy golden scissors.
As you work your way down the line, slathering the tender crostini with bright layers, a spoon immersed in the warm milk emerges holding a globe of fresh housemade mozzarella. Somewhat solid, somewhat melted, it's impossible to figure out how to get a piece off for inclusion on your stack without standing up from your seat and creating a ruler-sized stretch of cheese. This is where the fun really begins. While one person stretches the mozzarella, the other uses those tiny scissors to … cut the cheese. "Would you be so kind as to cut my cheese?" I asked my dining partner, repeatedly, with as straight a face as I could muster.
We all need more opportunities to act, laugh and eat like children. Take advantage of every one you find. Please, play with your food—and never ever be afraid to cut the cheese.