What’s a question that everyone seems to ask you when you return from a trip? Without exception, whenever I discuss a destination someone will ask me about the food. There are dishes for days. You have your staples i.e. rice, bread and other grains. You also have the more exotic: horesemeat, brain of lamb, and live octopus. The Golden Arches can be a convenient travel companion. The Americana of bunn[ed] meat served with fries is a study on cultural adaptability. In any case, food is apart of the human experience, and whether we’re eating pizza or burgers the etiquette of dining has varying shades. How important is it to really eat lettuce with the salad fork?
Utensils are our dining instruments. Most Americans may feel more comfortable with spoons and the like, while diners in the East of Asia are more adept with chopsticks. Some diners prefer to get more connected with their food. As my late grandmother would often say, God gave you forks (wiggling her fingers). It has been my experience that many diners across the world due away with third party utensils and use what God gave them. The reasons may be varied. Let’s consider the practicality of it. I’ve shared many communal dishes where only hands were used to eat. Surely this allows one to have more of a connection with his or her food. For certain societies that were recently nomadic imagine how cumbersome it would have been to lug around a Crate & Barrel-esque dining set. Also, some claim that this direct experience has health benefits. I was once at dinner with friends from Saudi Arabia. We were enjoying some standard Saudi fare (a communal serving of chicken and rice) and my Saudi friend claimed that the first three fingers on the right hand (these were the fingers being used to eat the dish) produce enzymes that make the food easier to digest. True or not, placebos can make one feel better and as long as the food taste good, right. On a trip to Hyderbad (India) the mother of a good friend purported that Indian food tasted better when eaten with your hands. A comment she made as she pitied my sensual depravity caused by my use of a fork. This type of eating is efficient and please note that in most places you’re to restricted to using only the right hand.
To the outsider, this may seem odd of course. There is a certain tact and dexterity to it. Recently, I attended an Arab film festival amongst a mostly non-Arab audience. A scene in one of the films showed the protagonist and his father enjoying dinner sans forks. This tickled and mildly shocked some of the other viewers. Seeing someone with a different dining etiquette in a film can be a gentle illustration of a cultural nuance. Experiencing someone with a different etiquette outside of their environment can be perceived as unsophisticated. Don’t those people have manners. Likewise, some people adopt the etiquette and eating habits that come with a certain culture as a way to display their worldliness. Chopsticks quickly come to mind. Some people have an instinct for how to use them, while others may sit through numerous personalized tutorials and YouTube videos in an attempt to become proficient at the craft. For those who are comfortable with them there exists a smaller minority that attempt to flaunt their ability needlessly. It’s great to know how to use chopsticks. This will ease your apprehension on sushi night. However, it’s equally important to know when to use chopsticks. An occasion at an upscale fusion restaurant in the company of a very expressive and self assured individual comes to mind. The gentleman ordered kimchi fried rice, one of my favorites. When the food came out our guru proceeded to eat it with chopsticks. No major offense. But, I’m sure if I had eaten the same dish with a spoon, I would have been at the mercy of his criticism— even though this dish is always eaten with a spoon in Korea.
Korea, a foodie's dream (unless you're a vegetarian), is ironically quite good at . . . fried chicken. During my time in the land of a million chicken restaurants squared, I’ve always been unsettled with how formal Korean diners can be with their fried chicken. There are knives, forks and tongues (the metal kind) involved. Just as our Arab and Indian diners, there is a practicality that can be discovered. If you want to maintain your suaveness from night till dawn there is no sense in sullying yourself with greasy chicken. While the adage goes When in Rome. . . , I tend to defer to the grandmother’s sagacity on this matter. I am a product of my environment after all.