Different cultures have different ways of eating, and obviously no one culture has a monopoly on the best way of doing anything.
Still, in Taiwan recently, I found myself watching my Asian tablemates at dinner, trying to mimic the way they did things, just to see how it would feel, just to see if, maybe, I couldn’t find a better way to do what most of us do three (or usually more) times every day.
Chopsticks, of course, were present here as the primary utensil, as they would be on most Asian tables. Back here in Oak Park, we eat with sticks all the time, and I have to say, for most foods (especially those cut into small pieces, like most Asian cuisine) chopsticks make it possible to focus more on the food, eating consciously rather than shoveling (you know what I’m talking about).
Chopsticks are worthless for steaks and baked potatoes, but one has to admit: they can compel the eater to spend more time with the food, and that’s probably a good thing.
Liquids seem to have a different place on the Taiwanese table than they do in the United States. Alcohol is largely absent. One Saturday night at the Sheraton Taipei, I marveled that in the large hotel dining room where we sat, only one table among many dozens had a bottle of beer on it – I saw no wine or mixed drinks. I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing, but one certainly does learn restraint in a country of teetotalers.
Soup – as at Chicagoland Asian restaurants – seems to come at the late-middle or end of a meal, exactly opposite to how we usually enjoy it in the US. This may have something to do with the ayurvedic notion that slurping liquids with food will tend to dilute stomach acids and thus retard digestion (this may also explain the lack of beer and wine at dinner, see above). Just speculating.
Perhaps the most powerful lesson about eating I picked up in Taiwan was at the Chung Tai Chan Monastery, where I was fortunate enough to share lunch with a resident Zen Master (one of the most serene dudes I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet – and, yeah, I did ask him the obligatory “meaning of life”-type question). I noticed that all of the North Americans at the table (including me) inclined our heads toward the plate to eat, but that our hosts – all Zen monks –brought the small bowls or plates up to their mouths to eat, a much more elegant and graceful and, most importantly, pleasant way to enjoy food. When you hold the bowl chest-level, you don’t have to hang over your food like a slavering dog, and you can maintain eye-contact with your fellow diners at all times. Eating this way also tends to slow you down. Better, right?