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The Dietary Culture of Asia

by Naomichi Ishige
Professor of Anthropology at Osaka's Museum of Ethnology
Translated by Thomas A. Steele

"What bad manners you have! Don't eat with your fingers, use your chopsticks!" For many a child in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, this parent's reprimand is one of the first lessons in social manners. For each of these ethnic groups, putting food in your mouth with your fingers is viewed as an ill-mannered, rather animal-like act.

One of my Indian friends, however, has told me, "When I eat with a fork or chopsticks, I lose the pleasure of having a meal. If we eat with our fingers, we can also enjoy the heat of the food, the consistency of the curry, and the texture of what we are eating. For us Indians, our fingers are like a second tongue." We need to move away from the slanted view that eating with the fingers is unsanitary and barbaric, while using eating utensils is the "civilized" way to eat a meal. The culinary arts of the world's various peoples are a cultural heritage developed over the centuries. The best way to ensure full enjoyment of each ethnic group's foods is to eat them in the same manner as they do. Even eating with fingers has a set of manners all its own.

In Asia, the custom of eating food directly with the fingers is found in the Middle East, India, and throughout Southeast Asia with the exception of Vietnam. In all such localities, the hands are normally washed thoroughly before and after the meal. Certainly your own hand which you have carefully washed yourself is a more reliable sanitary tool for eating than the fork or chopsticks washed--perhaps haphazardly--by someone else. Moslems, Hindus, and the members of other sects may use only their right hand for eating, with the left hand, deemed less clean, used for other purposes, never coming into contact with food. In localities where eating with the hand is the tradition, people do not use tables or chairs, instead gathering around the food placed on a mat or similar floor covering and using the hands to partake of food from a common central bowl or plate.

In contrast, cultures which use chopsticks apportion the food among those joining in the meal, with each person eating from the individual dishes in front of him. In particular, soup and the staple food, rice, of such "chopstick regions" are served separately to each individual, and small individual bowls have developed in such regions for this purpose.

The three main Western eating utensils, knife, fork, and spoon, first began to appear together on European tables in the 17th century. Chopsticks, on the other hand, have a much longer history and were widespread in China as long ago as the second century B.C. Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, all of which were strongly influenced by Chinese civilization, also came to use chopsticks. Similarly, the peoples of Mongolia and Tibet, both of which border China, are familiar with chopsticks but normally do not use them in their everyday meals.

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