Those who eat together, stay together
I am sure the sight of it may be shocking to some, or worrying to a few for the unhygienic way that we Asians love to eat the communal way. Imagine plates and plates plus bowls and bowls of various food from dry to soup dishes laid out on a table where everyone surround and scoop out with their own spoon or fork or chopsticks right into their mouth and then continue the same cycle again and again. To paint it clearer, imagine a Chinese family, surrounding the food, gobbling down food, then someone look up to take more to go with their rice, bite and suck on the end of their chopsticks while their eyes scan the dishes to decide which they would like and then once targeted, they take the chopstick right out from their mouth with a smacking sound and zoom right down to the dish and pick up a bunch of food, sometimes even dropping again the food down to the dishes and try to pick up the same or whichever nearby if needed again. So imagine those who have always been eating the way where they pass food to each other and gingerly take food from the clean common spoon onto their own plate or has always been served with their own portion on food separately, this communal way of eating should be quite a sight to behold.
I have always been eating this way, mostly with family and close family friends, frequently with friends and sometimes even with people we just knew. Once you sit people down to a feast, all shyness and boundaries goes out the window; where everyone start smacking their lips and poking at food together as If they have been long lost friends. Food transcends boundaries, it brings people close together. My most memorable feasts are usually at the biggest Chinese celebration which is the Chinese New Year. Here I would see feast of many of my favourite dishes, mostly only appearing once a year, making them very precious and the reason to gorge like I will never get to eat them again, or at least not until next year. Not to forget of course is the way we come together during these feasts, where we bellow with laughter, talking loudly and incessantly, updating each other of our lives and gossiping about others, a trait that we Chinese seem hard to avoid, and then of course keep on eating and eating and eating till we can eat no more.
Looking deeper though, I do think that internally within a family, communal eating do bring the family closer together. Family that eats together stays together. Of course during my teenagers years I would not think the same way, in fact I was really happy that I am spared of this ‘rule’, therefore in no need to rush home during lunch or dinner, and get to choose when to eat when I want to, of course within the stipulated time set by my mum. But right now, looking back, I am sort of envious to those of my friends who used to eat communally with their family. I believe it is this sense of going back and eating together, updating each other on their lives or just having this routine makes one a family, while sharing food together along with everything else. Another reason that I love communal eating is the possibility of tasting everything in sight and chooses what you like best to eat more of; yes I am greedy as such. I love to share yet I am greedy in contradictions but somehow communal eating bridge the gap together for me.
Anyway, if you are in to try some communal eating the Asian way, though it has badly defrayed from the older days of real Chinese etiquettes, here I still try, yes try to practice some etiquettes that I deem needed such as:
No double dipping the sauces.
It means do not take a morsel, dip the accompanying sauce, bite off a part of it, and then dip into the sauce again for more. Not only is this hygienically not wise, it is truly not a good sight to behold, at least for me. So if you must have the sauce, else maybe then the morsel is just incomplete or your first dip was really bad, then you can get a clean spoon and scoop up some sauce and then proceed to lather it onto your morsel.
Decide before taking.
Decide what to eat before picking it up, to avoid hovering over the dish and pushing and poking to find for your favourite piece. Imagine yourself, using a chopstick or any other utensils, rummaging through the dish to find your best piece or worst still, standing up reaching across the table and look as if you are digging for goal somewhere!
Once taken, it is taken.
After picking up the food, do not drop it back into the main dish, even if it is not what you intended to take or want to eat. One of the best way to cover this mistake is to show some attentiveness and pass on that food to somebody, smiling as genuinely as possible and say “nah, have a piece”. The bonus point is that it is even something praiseworthy to do! Please though, do not let people know you heard this trick from me.
In the end though, just remember to enjoy the meal, after all we are all just there to have a good meal, so any faux pas can be overlook, or as how the Chinese likes to say ‘close one eye’, in a way meaning that we can pretend we did not really see that. As long the meal and company is great, it is all that matters in the end of it, where everyone sit back, burp loudly and rub their bellies, or maybe not quite as graphic, but you get the picture, and then just smile contentedly thinking about the next good communal meal at the back of their minds.
Rokh is a food columnist on Malaysia Travel Guide, she’s an epicurean and a cook who loves to eat, also writes in her own food blog ThamJiak – Malaysia Food Guide. In this column, she will bring you along while she explore various Malaysia foods, like what is good, what makes them so special and how or where to best well enjoy them. More [+]