The hosts made it look so easy but making ball of rice in the palm of one hand is a skill that is definitely acquired.
A tough skill to grasp
As the only non-Emirati guest invited to the wedding of a cousin, I was asked to the Al Dhaheris for lunch one weekend so we could all have a chance to meet each other. I met a mother in her early 50s and eight of her nine children, who ranged in age from 14 to 35. I spent most of the day sitting in the main living room - a large space with cushioned chairs lining all four of the hospital-green walls - talking and fielding questions from whichever family members were in the room.
Lunch, of course, was the high point. "While you are here, you must eat like us," the mother told me, smiling, like she was showing me an obstacle course I was about to have to run through. "No fork, no knife. We will sit on the floor and eat with our hands." Spiced chicken, stuffed peppers, rice, tabbouleh, yogurt and tomatoes. Despite the language barrier, showing an appreciation for delicious food and generosity is universally understood. Eating the food, though, is a different matter.
Sensing my uncertainty over how to execute the task without utensils, one sister demonstrated the technique. She grabbed a handful of rice and a piece of chicken and pressed them together in her hand to form a rice ball, which she rolled off her palm with tremendous ease. I attempted to do the same. I shoved my hand into the mountain of rice, picked up a handful and tried to squeeze it into a ball, unsuccessfully. I opened my greasy hand and the rice fell out on to my plate. The girls laughed hysterically and shook their heads.
"La, la," one of them said when she had collected herself, and then gestured for me to watch her. She repeated the movement and revealed another perfect little rice ball. More failed attempts. More laughter. Had I been among people I knew better, I probably would have expressed my desperation and frustration. My inability to make rice balls was impeding my ability to eat. And I was starving. But it simply wasn't meant to be.
I couldn't make a rice ball. I tried different techniques, squeezing with more or less vigour, adding yogurt to hold it all together, saying a quick prayer before squeezing the rice. I failed every time. The skill continues to evade me. "Maybe it takes time for you," one sister said after recovering from a side-splitting laughing fit. "It's OK. It just means you have to come back again. And next time, maybe we won't eat rice."