I love holding a strawberry by its stalk and dunking it first in cream and then in sugar. I love the way sweet, perfumed pear juices trickle down my fingers as I peel them, so that I have to lick them off before they run over my wrist on to my shirt cuff. I love the way the perfect smoothness of the shell of a hard-boiled egg cracks as you smack it against the table or a rock, revealing the shiny roundness of the white underneath. I love balancing the peeled egg in the palm of my hand, before dotting it into salt and into pepper and into my mouth.
I love holding a crisp lettuce leaf loaded with chopped stir-fried chicken and vegetables, then pushing it into my mouth, trying not to let the contents cascade down my front. I love the softness and density of flesh, the slippery oiliness of cooking juices. I love the way you can use a still-hinged mussel, the meat of which you have already eaten, to pluck the meat from its neighbour. I love peeling shrimps - or, even better, lifting the taut, tender tail of a langoustine before dipping it in mayonnaise.
And I am not alone in my loves. Iranians wrap their kebabs in flat bread to make them easier to eat. Indians save on the washing-up by eating curries with naan. And do you know why Thais serve sticky rice with nam prik ong (crispy pork, raw vegetables and a spicy dip) and ook gai (chicken and lemongrass curry)? So they can roll little balls of rice, dent one end with their thumb, and use that to scoop up juices, vegetables, meat or fish from the communal pot.
There are people who recoil at the idea of eating with their fingers, who give the notion the thumbs-down. Fingers - you never know where they've been, they say. I am not one of these refined folk. I love the hands-on approach. I like the feel of food. I like getting stuck in.
Recipes feed six.
Stuffed lettuce leaves
You need a good, crisp salady thing for this. Romaine does nicely. Cos is fine. Even iceberg can help out. If you want a strictly vegetarian option, drop the pork and replace it with, say, aubergine cut up into a similar size. You may need more vegetable oil than specified.
1 large onion
4 sticks celery
2 medium carrots
3 cloves garlic
2 tbsp fresh ginger
2 tbsp vegetable oil
Rice wine vinegar
16 lettuce leaves (more if you're hungry)
16 basil leaves
Dice the pork into roughly 1cm cubes. Finely chop all the vegetables and the ginger. In a wok or frying pan, heat the oil until smoking. Add the pork. Sprinkle with a little sugar - and fry until nice and brown. Add the vegetables and ginger, and keep frying until the onion is translucent. If you have cut all the other vegetables small enough, they will cook in the same amount of time. If they are still a bit crunchy at the end, no matter. Sprinkle with mirin and then rice vinegar. Cook a little longer, to mix the flavours.
Scrape the contents of the pan into a warm serving dish. Divide the lettuce leaves. Plop a spoonful of the mixture and a basil leaf or two into a lettuce leaf, fold the sides in to enclose it, and force it into your mouth. Keep a keen eye on the mixture so that others don't take advantage of your boss-eyed gourmandising.
Spare ribs in stout and molasses
Depending on how greedy you are, you may find these quantities are enough for only four people.
50ml cider vinegar
3 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 dssp nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
1 tsp cayenne pepper
Mix together all the wet ingredients and the cayenne in a saucepan, stir well, bring to the boil and simmer gently for two minutes. Leave to cool, then pour this marinade over the ribs and rub in. Leave to marinate in a cool place for at least two hours.
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/ gas mark 6. Pour off the excess marinade and reserve. Place the ribs in a roasting pan, cover with foil and bake for one hour, turning them at least once. Remove the foil and cook for a further 20 minutes, regularly basting with the reserved marinade. By this point, the meat should be brown, crusted and just about to fall off the bone, so get stuck in.
One of my favourite finger-licking treats.
Salt and pepper
Spatchcock the quails by cutting down the breast bone with a pair of scissors. Flatten them. Sprinkle them with the juice of two lemons and dribble olive oil over them. Sprinkle them with salt and freshly ground pepper, and keep in a cool place for about an hour. Pop under the grill breast side down, not too close to the flame. After four minutes turn them over and grill for another four minutes. They should be well tanned but not burnt or leathery. Turn off heat. Strip the leaves off the thyme and scatter them over the resting birds. Let them rest for five minutes. Serve in a great pile on a plate in the middle of the table with lemon wedges.
The splendid roadside tasty of Emilia-Romagna, essentially a pancake you can fill with whatever you like. Why not try sausage and beetroot tops (a robust combination), ham and grilled zucchini, or spinach and Parmesan? The quantities given make about eight piadine.
250g 00 flour
2 tsp sugar
50g pork fat (or 2-3 tbsp olive oil)
Mix the dry ingredients, then add the fat or oil and enough milk to make a soft dough. Knead briefly. Rest in a cool place for an hour. Divide the dough into eight and roll each out into a round about 25cm across. Fry each piadina on an old-fashioned pancake griddle or a nonstick pan lubricated with a little more pork fat or olive oil. Give them two minutes a side, then flip on to a board. Fill with whatever you fancy. Fold over and eat with your fingers