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Adopting - or not - foreign eating customs in the US

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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  1. Good rule of thumb: If it feels good, eat it.

    2 Replies
    1. re: beevod

      I am NOT eating my cat, I don't care what part of the world they do that in! ;-)

      1. re: BobB

        Lol! And yes, I actually laughed out loud. I wasn't expecting that, BobB, ha.

    2. The Ethiopian food is a good example as well. Should I have asked for a fork and eaten like a Westerner because the Eth. place I dined at was here in the states? Or because it might have offended my dining companion, who was also a Westerner? What I did instead was explain to my dining companion what the traditional custom was, which was borne out by others doing the same, and then the companion ate with their hands as well, commenting that it felt "weird" or "wrong," but doing it anyway.

      SOMEONE introduced this concept to the Americans at the DC restaurant. I proffer that I am doing that with my local noodle place.

      23 Replies
      1. re: rockandroller1

        But do you eat curries with your hands in Indian restaurants? If not, why not, when that's how it's done in India?

        I would postulate that the use of injera makes eating Ethiopian with the hands more acceptable because of its similarity to existing American customs like eating dips with chips or bits of bread, while dipping ones fingers directly into goopy mush is not done here.

        1. re: BobB

          I think if it became generally acceptable here to do it, yes, I would. As I understand it, when people go to other japanese style noodle houses here in the US, there is plenty of slurping going on. There's just none in my local joint as the style of restaurant and eating is completely new to where I live.

          1. re: rockandroller1

            But as you yourself have said, it's not "generally acceptable" for people in the Japanese restaurant you frequent to slurp, and yet you're doing it and trying to encourage the adoption of the practice. Why not start eating Indian style and encourage the adoption of that too?

            I realize I'm playing a bit of devil's advocate here, but I'm trying to tease out the underlying principles of what customs people are and are not willing to adopt.

            1. re: BobB

              Those curry stains are a bitch to wash off your hands.

              1. re: linguafood

                Clothing, also. The splatter from my curried goat never came out of my shirt and shorts and I had to discard them.

                1. re: Veggo

                  Were that the tradition wasn't only eating with your hands, but naked, too.

                  Then you could just rinse off afterwards :-)

                  1. re: linguafood

                    I have tried that, and have the booking photographs to prove it. Think that I will eschew the naked dining, and move on.

                    Hunt

                  2. re: Veggo

                    Veggo,

                    That is NOT a pretty sight.

                    One night in Marrakesh, after a great meal, and too much wine, I found that I had married a goat... It took a bunch of $ to have that ceremony annulled. "Send lawyers, guns and money... " At least the goat was from a prominent local family, but there seems to have been some sort of pre-nup, though I do not recall signing it. Fortunately, the "kids" got the estate.

                    Hunt

                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      Thanks to CS&N for Marrakesh Express, and R.I. P. Warren Zevon... We agree curry is strong stuff.

                  3. re: linguafood

                    And, whatever you do, do not rub your eyes!

                    Hunt

                  4. re: BobB

                    I probably would, except I don't care for Indian food :)

                    1. re: BobB

                      I would add for clarification that the restaurant in question actually has a PICTURE at each table, step by step of how to eat the noodles, with cartoons indicating "slurp slurp" as the cartoon character eats, and then picking up the bowl at the end to drink from it. So it's not accurate to say it's "not acceptable." Clearly, to the owners and chefs and likely the waitstaff, it is acceptable. It's just not a widely known about custom here because it's new. How does it BECOME acceptable here, as it is in other US noodle places, if someone doesn't start doing it?

                      1. re: rockandroller1

                        Good point. Let's look at it from another angle. Why does this Japanese restaurant encourage people to eat their food the way it would be done in the home country, (as do Ethiopian ones) but Indian restaurants do not?

                        1. re: BobB

                          I think that's actually yet ANOTHER discussion, and kind of an interesting one to ponder.

                          I would say that one culture is more focused on assimilating, but living in an apartment complex with over 900 units and 85% or so Indian-occupied, that certainly doesn't appear to be the case with me, since they all wear traditional saris around the complex, don't speak English and shun interaction with non-Indian neighbors. Maybe when it comes to business, they are more "do whatever it takes to get business" and the japanese are more like "our unique culture will draw the business as it's different and cool?"

                          1. re: rockandroller1

                            Interesting. It's true, from my experience, that Indian folks are more "Western- oriented" and more interested in assimilating than Japanese folks, for example, who take especial pride in the "uniqueness" [interpret that how you wish] of their culture, EVEN THOUGH they also at the same time take on so much Western culture into their own society. Interesting.

                            1. re: huiray

                              It probably tips at some point when there is a critical mass. If you are the only Indian family on the block, it might be more important to you to assimilate. If 85% of the 900 families in your apartment complex are Indian, you might not see a reason to bother.

                              1. re: huiray

                                I wonder if Indian culture and cuisine are more Western oriented because they were colonized by a western nation, whereas Japan was not. Nearly 100 years of imperial rule will alter any culture and what better way to see that than through the foods of that country?

                                1. re: velochic

                                  Parts of India were under British control for over 300 years.

                                  I find the Indians in Dubai very adept at switching back and forth to eating with their hands and with utensils. Actually if anything well to do Indians now almost always eat with utensils and it's only poorer Indians who exclusively eat by hand.

                            2. re: BobB

                              While I am by no means an expert on Indian dining, but I've dabbled in it for a number of years, including eating at a couple of Indian homes. While I am quite aware of the right hand rule, and aware that food might be eaten without utensils (after all forks are a relatively late addition to European eating), I've never encountered the expectation that I should shun utensils. I haven't gotten the impression that eating with ones hands was a integral part of Indian dining practices.

                              1. re: paulj

                                I regularly eat at places where the overwhelming majority of diners are of South Asian descent. Whilst, occasionally, you see someone eating with their hands, everyone is generally using knife and fork.

                                1. re: Harters

                                  ...which is a function of Indian mores adapting to those of the West, or of Indians living as a minority in the West adopting the mores of the West.

                                  In India, which is the place the OP initially referred to, eating with one's hands would be common. (Yes, customs change, societies change...etc...which is yet another topic)

                            3. re: rockandroller1

                              Perhaps things would be better, if they did a video, like the safety instructions on a UAL A-320 flight, covering all aspects of enjoying the meal, though without the promo from Jeff Smisek for the UAL Chase credit card?

                              Hunt

                      2. re: rockandroller1

                        I do what I like within reason, if I don't like the injeera (some are just too sour) - heck yes I ask for a fork. you can eat with your fingers if you like. just be thoughtful about it. Otherwise I don't care.
                        noodles depend on the sauce and what I'm wearing. I can handle a set of sticks, but can it splatter a bit unless you're in a group that doesn't think it odd to hold the bowl up.

                      3. You may be on to something here.

                        I'm not fully persuaded of the "no fingers in direct contact with messy food" bit, though. Fried chicken in some forms is pretty messy; popcorn slathered with butter IS messy; and BBQ ribs is just plain messy and clothes staining. Yet in BBQ country I daresay some folks who use fork-and-knife to eat BBQ ribs, for example, might be ridiculed by other folks gripping ribs in hands dripping with sauce. Perhaps here whether a custom is "home grown" matters, even if such a custom is equivalent to one that for one reason or another is considered "foreign" and for some strange reason is considered "beyond the pale"? (I like MY way just fine and refuse to consider YOUR way) Your speculation about "local norms" would then suggest that folks in BBQ country should be OK with eating Indian food with their hands/fingers. Have you seen that? I'm wondering.

                        What about eating lobsters - dripping with juices and stuff, ripping them apart, slurping up the very wet pieces of flesh and juices (after dipping in butter, too, if desired), chewing on and cracking the juice-leaking legs & parts... Or a crab meal, ditto...

                        30 Replies
                        1. re: huiray

                          Rice and small saucy bits are a little trickier to pick up than meat on the bone. The South Asian fingertip method takes some practice to master without getting food all over your hands. Maybe not any harder really than chopsticks to master. I think size is a consideration, not just messiness.

                          1. re: babette feasts

                            It's my opinion, but I doubt eating with one's fingers "Indian style" is much more difficult than eating meat on the bone. I've eaten "Indian style" before and IMO is not difficult to learn - perhaps within a couple of meals - once you grasp the notion that one uses JUST the fingertips, NOT the whole hand, and that you gather together a 'clump' of rice, sauce and meat/veg just big enough for the tips of your fingers to scoop up, and that you use your thumb held behind the clump when gathered on your fingertips to push said clump into your mouth.

                            I actually consider eating BBQ ribs with my hands to be far messier than eating "Indian style", as it definitely messes up both my entire hands and messes up all areas of my face immediately surrounding my mouth. Copious numbers of paper napkins are needed to ameliorate the mess throughout the meal, whereas eating "Indian style" should leave the areas around your mouth untouched and requires only a clean-up at the end of the meal.

                            1. re: huiray

                              I agree that ribs can be much messier than Indian style eating - especially heavily sauced ribs. I spent some time in India earlier this year and do understand the fingertip approach.

                              But I did try to pick it up (pun intended) and did not find it at all as easy as you make it sound. Maybe you had better teachers, or more agile fingers.

                          2. re: huiray

                            Lobsters and barbeque - good points. Especially lobsters, as I'm a native New Englander. Both certainly messy, hands-on eating.

                            But I think there's an argument to be made that these examples don't compare in principle to Indian-style eating with the hands. For one thing, Indians eat EVERYTHING with their hands, not just certain foods. And these two types of foods are arguably easier to eat by hand than with utensils - yes, everyone knows somebody who can manage to clean a rib to the dry bone or get every last bit of claw meat out without getting their fingers dirty, but by and large hands are the most efficient way to go about it. Have you ever tried to eat popcorn with a knife and fork? But there is nothing about eating with your fingers that inherently gets a plate of curry and rice into your mouth any more completely and easily than with well-wielded implements.

                            1. re: BobB

                              True, but part of the discussion here is whether the NOTION of eating in the manner of the "country of origin" of some cuisine outside of the predominant (presumably Caucasian/European) American heritage is acceptable. One does not need to ALWAYS eat in that manner, just whether one could do so without thinking that it is beyond the pale to do so. In that sense, I could argue that folks in BBQ country OUGHT to have no problem with eating "Indian style" - but do they?

                              ETA: In fact, I myself prefer to eat rice-with-curries (or, indeed, rice-with-anything-saucy) served on a plate with fork and SPOON, in the common Malaysian/Thai/Singaporean/SE Asian way. MUCH more efficient than trying to eat rice+stuff with a fork. I do the fork-with-spoon (NOT teaspoon) method wherever I can when I eat said type of food.

                            2. re: huiray

                              Yes many foods are considered hand or finger food here in the US and we don't even think twice. Really when was the last time you used a fork at Mcd's?

                                1. re: BobB

                                  @BobB, until the late 1990s there were little french-fry forks at McD's in Paris, which just proves the point, doesn't it! The Parisians didn't eat french fries with their hands, even in an American restaurant, until much more recently.

                                    1. re: BobB

                                      I hope you see the point that many foods are eaten out of hand in the US and we do not realize it. Sorta an "us them" thing, when in an "us" place is cool, but when in an "them" place, we ill not be assimilated! LOL :-)

                                      1. re: Quine

                                        This reminds me of the thread about 20-somethings who seemed unable to use a knife and fork properly. Someone pointed out that many of the foods kids (some kids) eat are eaten with their hands: sandwiches, burgers, fries, pizza, tacos, burittos, chips and various dips, fried chicken or "nuggets," BBQ...add fruit, raw vegetables, cookies and ice cream to the list and a person could survive for years without touching cutlery.

                                        1. re: Glencora

                                          Oh yes I was in that thread. But it was sad that these now grown p children had parents that only threw fast foods at them so they did have to leave the TV/video game. Family meals are becoming extinct I think. As well as not knowing how to cook. Sad social commentary.

                                          1. re: Quine

                                            Yes, but at least they knew to not take off their caps, or even turn them around.

                                            Hunt

                                        2. re: Quine

                                          Quite true, but you must admit there is a significant difference between the US approach to eating with the hands and the Indian one. I suspect that nearly 100% of these American finger-food-eating kids would look around for some sort of utensil if presented with a dish of rice and curry (if they would deign to eat it at all, that is, and not just turn up their noses at that "weird stuff").

                                          1. re: BobB

                                            Well, here's another not-so-old thread about eating with your hands (in the US): http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/762408

                                            :-)

                                            1. re: BobB

                                              BTW, I meant to ask: would you elaborate on the difference (that you refer to) with regards to US food that those kids eat with their hands and Indian food that you think they may or may not eat but where they would probably ask for utensils?

                                              1. re: huiray

                                                In general what these kids eat with their hands are what most Americans would consider finger food - hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, pizza, snack foods, etc. The main point of the thread about them that Glencora referred to (this one, I believe: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/809728) was lamenting the fact that they so seldom eat what most of us would consider a proper knife-and-fork meal that they never developed proficiency with those utensils.

                                                That's quite different from the South Asian tradition of using the fingers to eat types of foods that would inspire most Westerners to immediately reach for a knife and fork.

                                                1. re: BobB

                                                  Thanks. (I commented on that thread too)

                                                  Nevertheless, I think the notion of eating with one's hands and whether it is fine or not does have something to do with familiarity - or "foreignness", if you will - of the food being eaten. Why would "Indian food" inspire a caucasian USAmerican to reach for "knife and fork" whereas BBQ ribs or fried chicken would not? It seems that "otherness" has a large part to play in the issue - and all the sociological commentary that could ensue from it. In the same sense, I wondered elsewhere in this thread whether folks in BBQ country would have no qualms about eating Indian food using their hands/fingers.

                                                  BTW I am not picking on your comments specifically - I'm commenting on the issue in general.

                                                  1. re: huiray

                                                    Also, it's not just the fact of eating something with the hands, or even necessarily what's being eaten, but how it's done. The young Americans we're talking about just grab and cram, whereas South Asian finger eating is much more deft than that, really quite a skill. I know you said you picked it up quickly but I did not find it so easy to emulate.

                                                    1. re: huiray

                                                      it can be argued that the custom of eating with hands has influenced the cuisine of the subcontinent, and vice versa-- so that eating w hands enhances the enjoyment of the food. for example most south indian dishes are not served piping hot, as they are in americanized indian restaurants-- they are served at a good temperature to be able to handle w fingertips-- coincidentally (?) the temp most conducive to being able to taste the bloomed spice mixes. it's very unlikely to burn the roof of your mouth w indian food, unless you are eating it (improperly) served too hot, and w a spoon! :)

                                                      some folks will say that eating japanese noodles, for example, w a fork rather than stix negatively affects the taste/experience-- or that taking a knife and fork to a plate of bbq or fried chicken is anathema. this is a similar idea.

                                                      i agree, after reading comments on this thread, that "otherness" is a huge factor-- the (false) idea that "other" cultures are undeveloped, dirty, or uncivilized-- wheras "we" set ourselves apart w our own customs and expect "other" people to assimilate to our own norms.

                                                      1. re: soupkitten

                                                        Eating with my hands certainly enhances my enjoyment!

                                                        1. re: jvanderh

                                                          Well, only if you lick your fingers, with a loud slurping noise.

                                                          Hunt

                                        3. re: huiray

                                          All of those things are indeed messy and accepted here, but they don't seem to me to be quite as messy as dipping one's fingers into, say, a bowl of liquidy stew or mostly sauce sorts of things - ?

                                          1. re: sandylc

                                            Uh, you don't dip your fingers into a bowl of liquidy stew or mostly sauce sort of thing when you eat in the Indian manner. Nor in the Malay manner or Indonesian manner. You have a serving surface (e.g. a banana leaf, typical for traditional South Indian meals) onto which rice, curries, vegetables, etc etc are placed using some sort of serving mechanism such as "gasp" a serving utensil from which you, the individual diner, then dine from using your fingertips.

                                            It seems to me that you have not ever viewed or considered such a style of dining nor looked into what it entailed. :-)

                                            1. re: huiray

                                              That's fair. I admit my ignorance. It's always good to learn new things.

                                          2. re: huiray

                                            I could never, ever order lobster or crab in a nice restaurant because I want to get every bit of yumminess out of it!! Ex-bf and I made Singapore Chili crab once on his sailboat for 2 other couples, and I provided everyone with plastic trash bag "bibs" (basically cut head & arm holes in trash bags). That was fun!

                                            I also used to order a spiny lobster dinner to go and then sit in the cockpit of my sailboat and devour it. Easy clean up!

                                            1. re: huiray

                                              Are you thinking lobster tail or a lovely whole Maine lobster. The tail you could manage with a knife and fork, but a whole lobster needs both hands, nut crackers and picks . Just accept the bib the restaurant offers if you value your clothing. Would not be a good choice for a formal meal. Probably why lobster newberg was invented.

                                              1. re: miriamjo

                                                Whole lobster.

                                                As has been discussed elsewhere on this thread, de-shelled lobster or pretty-fied lobster tail, selected dressed parts of lobster etc are certainly served in posh places with fancy cutlery & tablecloths. I would consider an unshelled tail doable with fork and knife but dangerous in a formal setting. A slight mishap or a diner with less-than-perfect cutlery skills would lead to a spectacle being made.

                                            2. I think this is tricky ground. Trying to adopt another culture’s eating methods without proper teaching or understanding can lead to missteps. Let look at the Indian habit of eating with hands. From what my Indian friends have told me, its not that they just pick up the food from the thali and stuff it into their mouths. If you have had the opportunity to dine in that style, you find out there are rules about how you eat with your fingers. Then let’s look at chopstick use. There have been many discussions about how people do or don’t know how to use western silverware. How to hold, whether to change hands when you use a knife, etc. One thing I have observed from watching people use chopsticks is that the various methods used by most people to hold them is the functional equivalent of grabbing your fork in your fist and spearing the food. There is a proper way to hold and use chopsticks. I think it’s a tough thing to get people in the states to adopt other cultures eating norms when there’s no one around to show them how.

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: Bkeats

                                                that's certainly true, and cross-culturally. Our own American people aren't holding the fork and knife right a lot of the times, but we appreciate their efforts rather than be subject to them picking up a whole baked potato and gnawing on it, for example. And I would hope it would be the same with other culture's foods and utensils, or lack thereof, similar to language - if you are even TRYING to get it right, we appreciate it, and if you keep practicing, you will get it. Especially if you're the kind of nerd to practice at home or watch videos online to make sure you're doing it right. Which I am :)

                                                1. re: Bkeats

                                                  Not to mention how many people try to eat rice plates with chopsticks. It's exhausting watching them. ;-)

                                                  1. re: PegS

                                                    Actually, though I have zero finesse with chopsticks (all muscle), I can clean a plate of rice, even if not sticky-rice, with mine. I will never be on late-night Chinese TV as an example, but I can do a single grain, or a serving, all with the same chopsticks. Also, no "shoveling" allowed.

                                                    Hunt

                                                2. Interesting discussion. I have a friend who had an experience at a local Indian restaurant and it was not about eating with her hands but using a fork in her left hand. A waiter came up to her and chastised her for using her left hand to eat.

                                                  Another experience was a co-worker who smacked his lips while eating. Not sure if it was cultural or not but it was disgusting and I was relieved when he quit.

                                                  14 Replies
                                                  1. re: pairswellwithwine

                                                    Using the left hand to eat is seriously verboten in India, but even there no one seemed put off when there was a fork in my left hand. I'm really surprised that a waiter in the US would mention it at all.

                                                    1. re: BobB

                                                      I was born in the West, but am of Indian origin and grew up eating with my (right) hand. I learned very quickly that this is NOT something you do in public, based on public reaction. Although, this is at a time when there were very few Indians in my community.

                                                      So maybe it is a matter of critical mass, as well as public tolerance of difference. It would be nice if the public were not just tolerant of things that aren't TOO different. But perhaps that is crazy think.

                                                    2. re: pairswellwithwine

                                                      I have read that they must ALWAYS keep their left hands in their laps while eating. Has something to do with other....uh....human activities and which hand is used for which activity!!!!!

                                                      1. re: sandylc

                                                        i just Googled that Indian left hand rule...eewwww!. That one seems a little obsolete in this day and age.

                                                        1. re: Veggo

                                                          well it is a widely held custom, not only in Indian cultures but also Islamic ones. Considering this is a rather large population in the world, it is not obsolete. Keeping Kosher is also is derived from hygiene and food safety practices that are no longer such an issue. But I would say that it would not make keeping Kosher obsolete either.

                                                          1. re: Quine

                                                            Well, I think this is probably more of an issue of the original reason for the custom being less important in this era than it was originally.

                                                            1. re: sandylc

                                                              Then why do we still use handshaking? It's considered a very polite and respectful thing. But it originated from deeply long ago as a to show and verify no knife or weapon was hidden.

                                                              1. re: Quine

                                                                In many instances, I find shaking hands preferable to kissing cheeks.
                                                                Exactly half.

                                                                1. re: Veggo

                                                                  Ah, but it depends greatly on who's cheeks you are kissing. In the UK and Europe, if it's a lovely young lady, I just kiss a bunch of cheeks. So far, I have not done hard jail time, but maybe I'd better watch out.

                                                                  Hunt

                                                                2. re: Quine

                                                                  Same thing. Circumstances change, leaving behind a custom!

                                                                  1. re: sandylc

                                                                    Indeed. Every one or two thousand years let's recalibrate and go with the flow. We have really cool stuff now, like TP, soap, bidets, and flush toilets. Nature's calling need not be hand work any longer. For hopeless recalcitrants, we have finger nail clippers.

                                                                    1. re: Veggo

                                                                      have you ever seen the mumbai ghettos? not a lot of flush toilets, i'm afraid. i find the indian and middle eastern practice of washing rather than wiping to be extremely hygienic and very similar to the continental european use of a bidet. in fact, folks from north africa, asia and the subcontinent tend to wash even post-immigration when presented with western-style bathrooms with flush toilets. because it is a clean habit, amongst other things.

                                                                      this comes up every once in a while in chowhound threads and it's just astonishing that people obviously have no idea how widespread and practical these hygienic practices are. ewwwing somebody else's cultural practices is no different than religious bigotry or categorically rejecting a cuisine-- in fact, it's all tied together.

                                                                      1. re: Veggo

                                                                        Ah, modern plumbing. Nice addition to humanity, at lest where I travel.

                                                                        Hunt

                                                            2. re: sandylc

                                                              As a left-handed person, I'm glad I never encountered this!