I never do this, but I couldn’t resist typing on my phone, “Isn’t it strange that the Indian kid keeps yelling, “Burger, burger!”? and handed it to my b/f to read since I couldn’t very well say it in front of the family as they were sitting right next to us.
At Curry Walla, an Indian/Cambodian/Western restaurant in Siem Reap, I was doing my usual sweep of the customers, guessing who was from where, looking at what they were wearing, eating, and how they were communicating, if at all. I know I’m so judgmental, right? But before you start umpiring me (haha!) let me say in my small defense that I do this all the time and I’m not always having inner dialogue (knew it). Sometimes, I’m just looking. It’s what I do.
I was particularly fascinated by the Japanese (or Korean?) woman who was chewing her food while holding her iPhone between her hands. Her friend appeared to be looking at her own phone resting on the table. I couldn’t tell though.
My attention then returned to our table as my b/f’s food arrived. He started to immediately inhale his chicken lak lok, a traditional Cambodian dish.
“Why do you eat so fast?”
His food was still quite steamy, but he continued. You know, eating the way you do when your food is too hot, creating space in your mouth while chewing.
“A lifetime of eating impatiently.”
I smiled. Unlike him, I’m not a fast eater, never have been. Nor was I born into a big family where you had to eat quickly or lose out on eating altogether. I am an American though, so I was raised in a culture of fast dining experiences: drive-thru meals on the way to work or school, leaving a restaurant as soon as you were finished with your food, eating at your desk and microwave meals.
Living abroad though has opened my eyes (and stomach) to how the rest of the world, not only treats food, but how they eat their food. In the US, you are given a spoon, fork and knife. In Thailand (and Cambodia), you will receive a spoon and fork (let’s leave the chopsticks out of it for a minute). You’re supposed to push the food using your fork into your spoon and then raising a spoonful of food to your mouth.
But if you eat with someone from the UK you’ll watch them (fascinating for me) press their food onto the back of their fork using their knife. And then they will eat their food off of their upside down fork. Wh-at?! The fork and spoon method works pretty damn well, but the fork and knife just looks ridiculous.
Pizza places are fun because the American’s the only ones that pick up their slices or fold them like a taco and shove it into their gullets. I’ve learn to use a fork and knife because it seemed more civilized when the pizza is hot – and when no one else is doing it, I’m too self-conscious to do it alone. Of course, I refuse to be “very Thai” and slather my pie with ketchup. It’s horrifying to witness.
I was at a vegetarian place when my Japanese friend raised her plate of morning glory to her lips and started pushing the veggies and sauce into her mouth. I almost laughed out loud. Instead, I looked around to see if anyone else was watching her and muttered, holy shit in my head.
In Thailand, you never see a Thai person scoop food using chopsticks and holding bowls or plates to their mouths. Now, I know the Japanese do this (I’m looking at you, Yukz) and the Chinese, too. But Thais also don’t slurp their food or drink soup broth from their bowls like cups. Oh, no, no, no, no, no.
I remember eating street-side in Bangkok and watching a pretty Thai woman eating a bowl of noodle soup. She’d use her chopsticks to pick up the noodles and then place them in her “Chinese soup spoon”. Daintily, she’d gently blow on her noodles or arrange them just-so no stray noodles were hanging off her spoon before eating her food. It seemed like a nauseatingly slow way to chow down one of Thailand’s most favorite dishes, but it’s very civilized and illustrates how much Thais eat slowly and enjoy their food.
Even drinks. I’ve watched my fair share of students, for instance, continuously stab their straw in their plastic cups in an effort to “make more drink”. They also use their straw to scoop up an ice cube and eat it. In other words, they get as much drink as they can out of it. Unlike Americans who drain their drinks quickly, then open the lid and pour the ice down into their yawning mouths and chomp on it like an ice machine.
I’ve also observed how long Thais can take to eat a small dish while an expat or tourist is ordering their second plate. Although, I think Europeans are famous for sitting hours at a table enjoying their wine, food and company. Ok, it’s not like we Americans don’t do that too, but we’re less likely to make or have the time. Often, crowded places will make you feel guilty for lingering. I think with the advent of the Food Network and “chefs as celebrities” this has changed a bit, but in general, Americans are fast eaters.
Growing up, I was usually the last to leave our modest table. I really like to eat so I stayed around and lingered for seconds and thirds. My mom always worried that I’d get fat. “Don’t eat too much, Lani.” It was a warning that I ignored with eye-rolls. Plus, once I discovered reading and eating, I was in take-your-time heaven.
I once dated a guy who was so poor and cheap that he would finish whatever leftovers me and our friends had on our plates in restaurants. The other extreme was when my roommate “accidently” left a whole pizza between the TV and DVD player. That was a fun discovery. We take food for granted. Americans are living in a land of excess which allows horrible stereotypes like “eating hamburgers with both meat hooks and not making eye contact with the world until the napkin has been thrown” possible.
Back at Curry Walla, I side-glanced at the Indian family and tried to copy how they ate their curry and naan, but I knew it was hopeless, I’m left-handed.
How do you eat? Fast or slow? Mouth open or closed? Or do you store food in your cheeks like me?