Bringing food to one’s mouth is one of the most basic fundamental actions of human existence, but throughout history we have come up with various ways of doing it.
KNIFE AND FORK
While we tend to think of this as a traditional European way of eating, it apparently did not become commonplace until several hundred years ago. Before that, it was common to use a combination of fingers, knife and spoon, depending on the dish being served. It is now seen as the “proper” Western way of eating most meals. Still, eating Asian cuisine this way is highly problematic. Those of you who eat rice with a fork are either stupid to persist with such a thing, or are way more awesome than I am to be able to pull it off.
WHO USES THEM: Europeans (particularly Northern and Western Europeans) and their North American and Australian cousins.
PROS: When your meal requires some serious slicing – steak, or quiche, for example – then this is your obvious choice.
CONS: Near-useless for trying to eat anything that can’t be stabbed, such as soupy stewy things. Difficult to eat rice with, particularly the less sticky varieties like basmati. Chasing peas around a plate with a fork is so frustrating that it might make you want to stab yourself with the fork instead.
“THE ZIG-ZAG METHOD”
This an American oddity which is still common but in many cases has given way to “Continental Style” (knife in right hand for cutting, fork in left hand for holding, piercing and transferring food to mouth) which Australians and Europeans are more familiar with. The “zig-zag” style is very right-hand-biased, in that the fork (held in the left hand) is used only to hold food in place while it is being cut. Then the diner puts down the knife, transfers the fork to the right hand, and then brings it to the mouth.
At the risk of sounding culturally insensitive… the zig-zag is perhaps the weirdest and most inefficient of all the ways of putting food into one’s mouth I’ve detailed here.
Personally, I’m sure these were invented by Chinese for no other reason to prove how superior they were over the barbarian races. As a member of one of the barbarian races myself, I will admit that I didn’t learn how to use chopsticks until I was about 20. I was at Vietnamese girl’s party, everyone was eating steamboat and everyone – white guys included – could use chopsticks except me who had to ask for cutlery. Being out-Asianed by non-Asians is quite a comeuppance and the next night I ordered Chinese take-away with the sole objective of mastering the chopstick arts.
There are lots of interesting theories about the history of chopsticks. It is quite likely that their use was an essential element in the evolution of Chinese cuisine, giving rise to a style of preparation which necessitated food being cut into bite-sized pieces. Alternatively, the cutting of food into smaller chunks could have arisen as a way of hastening cooking time and thus saving fuel; in which case this may have made chopstick use a viable option. Given that noodles are a very ancient food in China, it is possible that chopsticks too are very ancient, since it’s hard to imagine what the Chinese were eating noodles with if not chopsticks. The oldest known chopsticks are dated at over 3000 years old.
WHO USES THEM: East Asia, from Japan to Vietnam.
PROS: There is arguably no better way of eating noodles. Also confers precision while trying to pick up a single item off the communal plate, which is harder to do with other eating implements.
CONS: Hard to master. Much slower than other eating styles, unless you are an absolute gun. No real way to cut food up into smaller portions, so this is normally done before serving. Some things are just really difficult to pick up with chopsticks, particularly rounded slippery things like straw mushrooms, my personal nemesis.
SPOON AND FORK
There’s reason to believe that this is a fairly recent development in dining. It’s commonplace in many regions where it is traditional to eat with your fingers, such as Thailand, where now it’s really only the rural people and the northern Thais who use their fingers. In Indonesia, both spoon-and-fork and bare hands are common. The spoon-and-fork combination is also very handy for eating spaghetti.
WHO USES THEM: Southeast Asians, some Southern Europeans and Latin Americans, Middle Easterners.
PROS: With such a potent combination, you can pretty much do anything. The spoon enables you to eat both solid and liquid foods, and the fork gives precision stabbing abilities, as well as superior noodle- and pasta-eating capabilities.
CONS: While the edge of the spoon can cut things, it’s not really so suited to things that need serious carving on the plate, like a thick steak. Also lacks the precision of knife-cutting.
FINGERS (USUALLY OF THE RIGHT HAND)
Old skool, yo. At least one-third of the world uses this as their primary method of eating. The rest of the world tends to consider it slightly backward, although that goes out the window where certain kinds of foods are concerned; no one’s going to eat a pizza with chopsticks, or a sandwich with knife and fork. But eating rice and curry in Sri Lanka – or beans and cornmeal in Kenya, or seven-vegetable couscous in Morocco – with one’s fingers is a bit more confronting to the genteel Westerner. Yet this was an accepted way of eating in Europe for a very long time.
Devotees of this method tend to claim that food “tastes better” when eaten this way. That sounds nice but let’s be honest, the only way that’s true is if your fingers have funky flavours of their own which add to the food, which is a bit disturbing if you think about it.
Despite being the most rudimentary of eating styles, that doesn’t mean it is easy. Tearing a chapatti in two in order to scoop up a curry seems easy until you realise that you’re not meant to use your left hand. Eating rice and soupy sambar lentils off a banana leaf in the South Indian style without any of it running down your forearms requires a little skill. In many countries, the diner really only uses the thumb and two or three fingers of his right hand.
Why only the right hand? The left is used for cleaning your butt, that’s why. Although not at the same time as you are eating, of course.
WHO USES THEM: Arabs, Africans, South Asians and many Southeast Asians.
PROS: Get “up close and personal” with your food, which helps negotiate tricky things like bones and gristle. Save on washing up. Gain cred points with SWPL types by showing you reject the stifling traditional bourgeois Western notions of table etiquette in favour of more “authentic” developing world ways.
CONS: Is possibly a health risk if you don’t wash your hands. Difficult to eat things that are too hot or cold, and is almost impossible to eat soupy dishes unless you have something carby to sop it up with. Also tends to result in your hand smelling like curry (or whatever) for the rest of the day. Tricky if you suddenly have to do something different during the meal, such as answer your phone. Also, people outside your culture may one day ask you why you don’t use your left hand for eating, which means you have to come up with a tactful way of saying that you use it to clean your ass.
Is this the way of the future? The twentieth century saw the invention of implements that were combinations of the spoon, fork and/or knife. Will they someday supersede other cutlery? Stranger things have happened.
You’ve heard of the spork and perhaps the splayd – also known as a sporf – but there are also such things as a spife and a knork. They certainly sound like they were invented by aliens, which makes it seem very futuristic.
WHO USES THEM: People purchasing things from food courts, and people on camping trips.
PROS: Since they are a combination of spoon and fork (and possibly knife too), they can in theory accomplish a wide variety of eating functions.
CONS: They are in reality very poor at performing many of those eating functions, and not just because they are mostly plastic. You can eat rice with it but not anything very liquid, and it’s not really good for noodles. Also, using a spork just doesn’t seem very classy at the moment, even with the nice metal ones. But perhaps their time will come.