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Not About Food 151

Adopting - or not - foreign eating customs in the US

BobB | Oct 25, 201107:20 AM

A thread on the propriety of slurping noodle dishes in Japanese restaurants got me thinking about the broader issue of foreign eating customs and how they are (or are not) employed when eating in an ethnic restaurant in the US.

It seems to me there is a spectrum of behavior here. At one extreme is the custom of using chopsticks when eating in Chinese or other chopstick-appropriate restaurants. Many, and in urban areas I daresay most Westerners use chopsticks, but forks are provided for those who prefer them.

In between are behaviors like the aforementioned noodle slurping, which those in the know realize is appropriate behavior in Japan, but which one rarely sees in the US except by Japanese natives. Belching after a meal is considered appropriate and even complimentary in some places, but is also rarely done (at least in polite company) here.

At the other extreme is the Indian practice of eating with one's hands, which is virtually universal in India. I have never seen a Westerner attempt to do this in an Indian restaurant here, and can't even recall seeing an Indian do it, though I imagine it must happen at family-style places.

Curiously, where I have seen Westerners eating by hand (and even done it myself) is in Ethiopian restaurants, where curry-like foods are served on large sheets of injera, a stretchy crepe-like bread, and one rips off pieces of it to scoop up the food. Of course, injera does tend to keep the fingers clean, while in the Indian tradition you mix all sorts of things together with the fingers.

It strikes me that these practices are accepted in the US in inverse relation to the degree that they contradict traditionally acceptable eating customs here. Chopsticks are fine because they don't violate any local norms - they're simply different, not rude. Slurping and belching, on the other hand, are considered rude but not necessarily shocking behavior for an adult, while eating wet, messy foods with the fingers would be considered completely inappropriate behavior for anyone over the age of three.

Not sure where I'm going with this, just curious what others may have to say on the subject.

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