Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pay Attention 2006 (how to eat at asain restaurants)

Readers: the following is a re-post of an entry I wrote in August 2004. I fixed some of the links, and I'm reposting it here because it has been getting passed around, and has actually found it's way back to me. I had no idea this post was getting around, but I'm reposting it here, now, so that you may leave a comment or suggestion. Enjoy.

My white friends always tell me they like going out to eat asian food with me because there are no rules.

There are rules, children, just not yo' rules. So pay attention. You may have been making an idiot of yourself.

You are eating rice.
Before we start, if you are eating asian food, then you are eating rice and something. You will be ordering something to compliment your rice. Rice is the given. Anything you order besides rice is meant to flavor your rice. The vast majority of dishes that you order were created to go with rice. They do not make sense without rice. If there is no rice on your table, you are not having a meal; it is just a snack.

In the 70s my family would go out for pizza; afterwards we'd go home and eat rice. In the 80s, we would order pizza, and my dad would say, "Ok, pizza's on it's way! Better make rice!" No, we did not eat pizza and rice; but there had to be rice at least at the table.

Fried rice is a kind of rice. Generally, it is what you do with your leftover rice. It is homestyle food; it is not very sophisticated. Do not order it if you want to impress someone.

Chinese for dinner.
Check your menu. If it does not say "Individual Combos" or something like that, you will have to order family style. You are not at Burger King; get over it.

First, put your menu down. You must appoint a dictator. If you order democratically, i.e., go around the table and let everyone choose a dish, you will end up with 5 kinds of chicken and no vegetables. Chinese food is not well served by democracy.

If you are the dictator, your job is to order a good meal. If you are not the dictator, you may either lobby the dictator (especially if s/he is incompetant), or you may leave it to the dictator. A normal order will have one or two kinds of meat, a lot of vegetable options, and steamed rice. If you order correctly, your vegetarian friends will eat well. If you order incorrectly, you will have too many main dishes and not enough sides.

The rice bowl is for rice. Put your rice in it. There is soy sauce on the table because white people like to soy sauce their rice. This is what asians consider "gross." GROSS! Rice is meant to be sticky. If it's not sticky, you can't eat it with chopsticks. If you soy sauce your rice (GROSS!) it will lose it's sticky. Also that soy sauce will clash miserably with almost every sauce that your food comes with.

You will notice that your rice bowl fits nicely in the palm of your hand. That is because it is meant to be held in the palm of your hand. PICK YOUR RICE BOWL UP OFF THE TABLE. If they didn't want you to pick it up off the table, they would not have made it that size and shape.

You should learn to use chopsticks; it's not hard. Ask your server. If you're not comfortable, use your spoon; you'll look like a child, but it is acceptable. You should never need a fork or knife; everything is bite-sized. If you decide you can't live without your fork and knife, don't be embarassed to ask; however, don't order noodle soup. Noodle soup can only be eaten with chopsticks and asian soup spoon.

At Chinese restaurants (and/or homes) you eat the food as it arrives; you DO NOT wait until everyone is served. Confucious say: Better a man wait for food than food wait for a man.

You may now start eating. If you're in China, you might pick a bite of food directly off the serving dish and put it on your rice. Then, you'll lift the rice bowl close to your face and put that bite of food into your mouth with your chopsticks.

If you are not in China, you'll have to make a plate. When want food, PICK THE DISH UP OFF OF THE LAZY SUSAN. Offer to serve the people around you; then serve yourself. Do NOT spin spin spin spin spin the susan, and then serve yourself from the susan; it prevents others from serving themselves.

Tea should be served the same way; serve everyone around you first. NOTE: drinking a lot of hot tea cuts through the greasy/salty in your mouth and in your gut. It will keep you from getting the runs. If you are at a table for four or less, the youngest person should keep everyone's tea cup filled. You may thank the person for pouring by tapping three fingers on the table.

If you ordered fried rice, eat it off your plate with your spoon. If you ordered a big bowl of noodle soup, lean over the bowl, grab a single bite of noodles with your chopsticks; your soup spoon should be in your other hand to help the noodles into your mouth. If at any reason your rice has become sauced and has lost it's sticky, put down your chopsticks and use your spoon.

When you're done eating, your chopsticks should be matched and parallel over your rice bowl.

Jinx! Don't ever stand your chopsticks up in a bowl of food. Don't point with your chopsticks. Don't let your kid play drums with chopsticks. Don't ever use just one chopstick to poke something. Don't do the walrus tusks; would you do that with spoons or knives? Stupid. Gross. You look like an idiot. Very original. Yah, take a picture. Fascinating.

Japanese dinner
Unlike at the Chinese restaurant, you'll probably wait for everyone to be served. You'll notice that it's not family style, and that your rice bowl is bigger and heavier. That means you don't pick it up. However, you'll still be eating over your rice bowl. Put it in front of you.

Your miso soup is served in a special bowl that goes to your mouth without a spoon. If there's stuff in it, like noodles or tofu or seaweed, dig it out with your chopsticks. By the way, miso is a side dish, not a soup course.

Nigiri sushi? You may prepare your sauce dish with wasabi and soy sauce, although it's not considered very elegant. Put your nigiri FISH SIDE DOWN into your sauce dish; otherwise your rice ball will disintegrate.

If you are serving yourself from a common source (i.e., wasabi, ginger, shared appetizers), Japanese people like to serve themselves with the backs of their chopsticks, so as to not contaminate other people's food with the mouth-end of their chopsticks.

When you're done with your food, your disposable chopsticks go back in their little paper sleeve, so the server doesn't have to touch them.

For teriyaki: ask the server to put the sauce on the side, or no sauce at all. Real teriyaki is a cooking technique and marinade, not a sauce. Sauce is purely for white people. If you forget and end up with saucy rice, pick up your spoon, put the chopsticks in the other hand, and eat with the spoon.

Japanese restaurants sometimes serve curry with rice on the same plate. In this case, use your spoon as above with your chopsticks in the other hand to move stuff into your spoon.

You are never expected to eat saucy rice off a plate with your chopsticks.

Korean and Vietamese cuisines are also chopsticky. It is a great sign of respect (especially to Koreans) if you clean your bowl or plate of every last grain of rice.

Thai, Filipino, and Indian cuisines are not chopsticky (although they'll give you chopsticks if you ask). You should eat with a spoon, with your fork in your other hand to push food into your spoon.

Filipino and Indian cuisines also have some pretty important non-utensil techniques. Ask your friends to show you. In the mean time, CUT YOUR NAILS. There should be ZERO room for food to collect under there.

Ok! Eat now!


rosepetalgyrl said...

omg!!! dang i can barely type i'm laughing so hard! I replayed asian restaurant scenes dining with white folk with each sentence I read. Thank you so much for your blog... I think I'll go invite and initiate some white folk to the asian rules of eating!!!

Jami said...

I love this! It's all the stuff I had to learn the hard way. Where the hell was this 30 years ago when I needed it? :-) I've spent time (and eaten) in China, Korea, Japan and Thailand and will testify that they're all different. Even to the types of chopsticks (where used) that predominate. I'm certainly copying this and printing it out to hand out to ignorant friends when we're going to be eating Asian. Thank you!

BTW, at our house, my kids (4 and 10) both know how to drive chopsticks, too.

Sean said...

I'm pretty relaxed about this stuff, but I have intervened on a particularly horrifying use of a fork with a bowl of noodle soup. When 3 feet of noodles are dangled above the head and *unsuccessfully* lowered into your mouth, you lose your eating priviledges - it's a fact.

I'm always amazed when I take white friends to dim sum, how their chopsticks just vanish and are mysteriously replaced by a knife and fork. :)

The only thing I'd add is taking the lid of a teapot to request fresh tea. Good service and a perfectly-timed teapot is a lovely bit of magic.

Thanks for the article...kam shia kam shia

A Perpetual Student said...

Thanks for the tips although they seem presented with a fair amount of condescension or derision.

Ignorance is not stupidity or boorishness and the way "white people" eat Chinese cooking is based on simple ignorance and the reality that the restaurants that serve them do not educate but prefer to take the easier path and adapt to Western styles of eating: knives and forks, flat plates not rice bowls, etc.

I am what you call a "white" person although I would never call myself that as the term has no identity to me. The fact you point out about rice being the central core of the Chinese meal is a different concept to Americans whose diet is typically meat protein centered with rice being a carbohydrate side dish served instead of potatoes. Good or bad, that is the way it is. Even though "white people" in a Chinese restaurant eat their rice "wrong" there is still a conceptual connection that rice is an integral part of Chinese meal.

I speak some Japanese and know that the word for meal is "gohan", the same word as rice.

That so many non-Asian people enjoy Chinese and other Asian cuisines, or at least what they have been served that has been called that, might well be considered a compliment to the cultures of its origin.

Chinese cuisine has been my favorite since I was a little child although, in retrospect, I was eating dishes that had been heavily Americanized. Yet somehow they bore some essence of their origins in their ingredients, in aspects of preparation, and in some of the seasonings. As I and my tastes matured I searched out more authenticity which, even though I live near NYC's Chinatown, is not always easy. It is difficult to communicate to restaurant owners or staff that I want the "real" thing.

Many restaurants are now catching on and recognize that there is a critical mass of Americans who enjoy Dim Sum and congee (one of my favorites) and the myriad of regional dishes from all over China now available here.

All this, along with the growing search for knowledge and appreciation of traditional Chinese medicine, martial arts, and Asian painting and sculpture, is a long delayed and overdue recognition in this country of ancient and rich cultures.

So I ask for understanding if I still often bring my rice to the meat instead of the other way around, but I am otherwise very proficient with a pair of chopsticks.

Duke Ellington is reputed to have said about music, "If it sounds good, it is good." I spin that and say, "If it tastes good, it is good."

curious said...

So what about dishes that have noodles? are they still meant to be eaten with rice?

john patrick said...

Perpetual student: This post was meant to be instructional. The only derision intended is for the people who play with their chopsticks (drums, walrus tusks, up the nose, etc.). Because seriously, if someone stuck a fork and knife up their nose and took a picture, I would deride them as well.

Curious: it depends on the dish and the cuisine. Sometimes, rice and noodles are eaten together, sometimes not. Ask your friends or your server.

Often it's hard for us to articulate these "rules," because they are so natural to us that they live in our cultural blindspots. It's only when we see people violating these "rules" that they surface.

For example, my Korean friends often say "there are no rules in Korean food." Usually what they mean is that European rules don't apply. However, if you start spooning soup into your rice bowl, or letting your mool naeng myun get warm, you'll notice them starting to get tense. Suddenly, some "rules" will come to the surface.