When it comes to eating in Chinese culture, there are quite a few dining etiquette rules one should be mindful of. It could be eating with a Chinese family at a boisterous Chinese banquet. Or it could be a more casual dining affair with Chinese colleagues from China over business lunch.
Coming from a stereotypical Chinese-Malaysian family, these Chinese eating customs surrounded me all my life. I’ve always found them odd to be honest, but always found myself sticking by them.
Meat. It’s something millions of Australians love to eat. Chicken, pork, beef, lamb and fish gastronomic delights usually aren’t too far away when we venture outside for food in Australia. Meat, certainly a popular kind of food and dish here.
Meat was a big part of my diet growing up. When I came home from school in Malaysia and Singapore, mum always served a meat dish – think stir fried chicken with oyster sauce, steamed soya sauce fish – with a bowl of rice for my dinner. When we moved back to Melbourne, mum cooked the same variety of dinner.
When I got older and went out more, the more my palate tasted popular Australian meat dishes: bacon on toast for breakfast. Beef pie, sausage roll for lunch. Chicken parma, grilled barramundi and chips, steak for dinner. Consuming meat all round the clock. What do we get out of eating meat?
Eating together at home as a family. It’s important to a lot of us. A tradition. Saying no to having meals together at home, especially dinner, is usually hard.
When I was a kid, my parents insisted my dependent younger brother and I all ate dinner together most nights, which we naturally did. These days it’s a different story. Some days when I finish work, I eat dinner in the city and then make my way home. Later on in the evening when I’m engrossed in touching up photos to share on Instagram in my room, mum or dad usually come in and quietly ask, “Are you eating dinner with us at home tomorrow?”
Family dinners are still quite the norm in Australia. According to a survey in 2012, 77% of Australian families eat dinner together at home five or six times a week, albeit a proportion of this in front of the TV. There’s certainly something significant about eating with family at the dining table. It’s more than just a habit.
I’m not a fan of sour foods. But my mum is. Whenever she’s back in Malaysia, she buys loads of sour lollies from the dried fruit-lolly shops there and asks me why I don’t want any. I don’t like tom-yum laksa or fish head curry either.
I don’t mind eating alone. I don’t mind asking for a “table for one”.
But what I do mind is getting grief for dining by myself.
Ricotta hotcake with berries. A great meal for one, but I chose to share it.
My Chinese-Malaysian parents are big on eating meals as a family, which is what many Asian families do. Growing up in Malaysia and Singapore, we ate dinner together almost every night. These days, it’s a different story. When I start putting my dinner on my plate before my brother is home, my mum asks, “Do you want to wait for your brother to come home and then eat?” No. No idea what time he’ll be back.
These days it seems many people of Asian ethnicity all around the world have impeccably strong palates for Western foods.
McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and various other Western restaurants are frequently packed during meal times in Asian countries. “Potato parties” have recently become a fad in Japan and South Korea, so-called parties where groups of young people order obscene amounts of fries and eat them all in one sitting at fast-food joints. Much love for fries.
Many Asian international students and Asian-Australians here in Australia also seem to possess Westernised palates. It is not uncommon to see them ordering fancy smoked salmon and poached eggs on multigrain toast or bircher muesli along with their coffee at upmarket cafes for Saturday brunch and kebabs for dinner later. What happened to having yum cha or sitting at round tables dining at Asian restaurants?