Diversions

Cultural Eating Practices

I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about food. I can be eating my lunch and planning the next snack, or what’s for dinner. I think part of it is due to how I was raised. Many of my fond childhood family memories revolve around a heaping table of food. It’s always the highlight of the night at family gatherings.

Also, if you’re from a Filipino family you can’t consider yourself a good host unless all your guests go home with full bellies. A Canadian friend who married a Filipina joked that no matter if they visited his wife’s parents without calling before hand, they’d always have enough food to throw a party for at least a dozen people. I just laughed. My parents are like that too (you should see their freezer).

What does this have to do with writing? World building, of course! Have you considered manners around eating, or attitudes towards food?

Let me begin with a few examples from Filipino culture:

The traditional manner of eating is kamayan or with the hands (kamay = hands). You can find kamayan restaurants in the Philippines, though most carry cutlery if you want it. There is no restriction on which hand you should use to eat, however there is a bit of proper technique involved: you press ulam* and rice together into a small ball that will fit into one mouthful.

*Ulam can be loosely translated as food that is eaten with rice. Rice is typically served steamed, and it must be accompanied by something else. You can’t just eat plain rice. Ulam can be meat, fish, or vegetables; really anything other than salad or condiments or deserts. If the ulam runs out, and you still have rice left, it’s just wrong to eat the rice alone. It’s just not done! Though, the reason is that steamed rice is fairly tasteless on its own, and the ulam is salty or saucy, so it has all the flavor. We eat a lot of rice.

However, most households use regular cutlery on a day to day basis. Kamayan is acceptable, but not the norm at most meals. There is a caveat though: the main utensils used are fork and spoon, instead of fork and knife. My guess is that this is because it is easier to eat rice this way. There is a distinct technique to using the fork and spoon that my friends affectionately call the ‘press and pull’ method. To break apart a large piece of meat or vegetable, you take your spoon in your right hand, fork in the left, face the spoon and fork edges back to back (pointing in opposite directions), press down into the meat, and pull off a bit of it off with your spoon. You’d be surprised how effective this is! (We also joke that there’s never a need for a knife). When you’ve successfully obtained a small piece of ulam, you use your fork to push it onto the spoon with a bit of rice. The spoon goes in your mouth, not the fork.

If you visit someone’s house you will always be offered some kind of food. In the Philippines a typical offering is fried plantain bananas and Coke. It is good manners to eat at least some of what is offered. Your hosts will be insistent.

Here are a few other random tidbits:

A normal day consists of breakfast, lunch, merienda (snack), then dinner. The three main meals of the day are served with rice. Even most soups are served with rice, rice can be added to the soup, or the soup can be spooned on top of rice. Food is served family style in containers on the table, and you are free to take as much as you want.

Food is traditionally served on banana leaves for added flavor. These days if you go on a picnic or to a party banana leaves are sometimes used to line paper plates/baskets, or to cover the surface of a table on which food is laid out.

Most vegetables are generally either cooked or pickled, and not eaten raw. Green (unripe) papaya is pickled and treated as a vegetable, as is green (unripe) mango.

Greasy food/oily is typically dipped in vinegar, and vinegar is often served with slices of garlic or chili in it. Other condiments include: fish sauce with lemon (patis mansi), salted brined shrimp (bagoong).

Wow I went on longer than I expected. I don’t really think about these things on a day to day basis, because they’re just normal to me. Feel free to share some of the rituals/customs you see around food!

11 Comments

  1. Hmm. I’ve never considered cultural practices surrounding food in my world building – but you’re right, they’re pretty central to what makes a culture what it is!

    Let’s see. My family follows what I guess is some form of the traditional American food culture. There are three meals a day: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, though snacks may be interspersed throughout. (In some places in the U.S. these are called Breakfast, Dinner, and Supper, as I understand it, but I think a certain amount of cultural homoginization has lead to the dominance of the former over the latter.) Frequently, in our house, there is also a small dessert after dinner as well (usually one to two hours later).

    Becuase of our work schedules, we eat breakfast on the go and lunch at work. Traditional breakfast foods vary somewhat. They can consist of cereals (today that means boxed dry cereal with milk, which is akin to a sort of cold porridge, but more traditionally this would be something more like Oatmeal or Cream-of-Wheat, which are more similar to traditional porridges), or they can be more similar to British & Irish Full or Fried breakfasts, which eggs, toast, bacon or sausage. Other breakfast favorites include Pancakes, Waffles, French Toast, and Omelettes.

    As far as I know, only Breakfast really has a specific, traditional set of dishes associated with it. Lunch and Dinner can be anything, and in North America that means any sort of dishes from just about anywhere (usually in Americanized versions). Dinner usually has some meat-dish as the main course. My most common Lunch is some sort of sandwich with some fruit and chips on the side. A typical Dinner will have the meat dish, a salad, and some starch-based side (potatoes, rice bread, pasta, etc.), and possibly a separate fruit or vegetable side to go with the salad. Just as often, though, dinner is a couple slices of Pizza, or Tacos, or Burritos, or Spaghetti, or… or… and so on.

    The utensils used varies by meal. Breakfast may only require a spoon, or may require a knife and fork, depending. Most days I don’t need a utensil for Lunch. Traditional dinner requires all three: spoon, knife, and fork (and very properly-observed etiquette calls for two spoons and two forks, but I’ve almost never actually done this in practice). In practice, though, we just set out whatever we feel we’ll need for the meal. Some foods may be eaten with the hands, but most foods require utensils.

    Also, I think it’s okay to turn down an offer of food, but if you eat food as a guest, it is considered polite to compliment the cook. It is typically polite to offer some food to guests when they come over, but generally snack foods and some beverage – as opposed to a full meal – are acceptable. Guests don’t expect to be fed a full meal, but they appreciate a small snack.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      The last part, I think, varies quite a bit. In some cultures it’s ok to refuse, but in others it will offend the host, and others yet taking a bite or a sip (without finishing) is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes it gets tricky figuring out which applies 🙂

      1. At first, as I was reading this… I was thinking “well, that’s cool. But I don’t have any unique food-things in my culture.”

        And then I realized I saw it that way because I had cultural blinders on (i.e. defaulting my own culture to “normal” and viewing all other cultures as variations from that theme). When I realized that, I thought it better to give as full an account of everything I could think of that relates to food in my culture.

        It’s interesting, but I never really thought about most of that before – except the part where I’ve always been curious why certain foods are considered “breakfast foods” in my culture, but most other foods aren’t considered “lunch foods” or “dinner foods”. I’ve occassionally wondered about that.

        But yes, it could get interesting when in one culture it might be polite to decline an offer of food from a host suddenly interacting with another where it’d be an affront to decline. Tricky, indeed.

      2. I didn’t really think of this until I was sitting at the lunch table yesterday. It is simple to assume the default, though even regionally things differ (east coast culture is different from west coast for example). It’s all quite interesting!

        You know, I’ve always wondered about the history of breakfast foods. Who decided that bacon and eggs are for breakfast? Or pancakes for that matter? and not at any other time of day. I wonder if I could google that…

  2. Lol I’m the same way about food: I think about the next meal while I’m eating one. 😛

    Great post. I don’t write fantasy so I don’t have to think about *build* eating habits/rituals, but food is an important part of everyone’s life, so we writers really need to think about how we integrate it into our stories.

    1. As I mentioned to Stephen, the differences didn’t even occur to me. It just seemed so normal that it didn’t warrant explaining, but yes, it is pretty important. I think even if you’re not writing fantasy, it can be good to pay attention to these things.

  3. Wow! I’ve enjoyed Indian food with my right (emphasis: RIGHT!!!! not LEFT!!!) hand before…A similar experience, I imagine. Have you ever been to the Philippines and experienced it first-hand? (Ha ha, nice wordplay…)

    I’ve been cooking Chinese food lately, and have been chopsticking it a lot, which I must say is very enjoyable.

    All things considered…The fork and knife American eating style is kinda boring. >:(

    1. Indeed I have experienced it! Though, when it came to stew like things I gave up and decided to go with a spoon and fork instead. So messy, though they had many sinks available to wash up.

      Hehe there are certainly more interesting ways to eat!

  4. Being Filipino, I know exactly what you’re talking about here! And don’t forget, they drink Coke in a bag!

    Nothing better than some chicken adobo and pancit!

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