Monday, May 7, 2007

Weird Things That White People Do, Part 1 (or: How to Eat an Asian Meal)

(Warning: Rant coming up)
There's this certain thing that I often see white Australians do, that bugs the sh*t out of me. I'm not sure why it bugs me so, because its totally none of my business, but every time I see it I get agitated and want to slap someone.

Ok, when you go to an Asian restaurant with a group, there is a certain way to eat. Basically, you order rice and a number of dishes to be shared amongst the group. All the food goes in the middle of the table and people help themselves to what is on offer. This is the "proper" way - I say this because Chinese people in a Chinese restaurant, or Indians in an Indian restaurant and so on, will eat this way without even have to discuss it - its just assumed.

HOWEVER, I frequently notice white folks in Asian restaurants (particularly Indian restaurants) doing this nonsensical thing where they order a dish each, then only eat that dish, while taking the rice and spooning it into their bowl or plate of curry or stir-fry.
WHAT IS UP WITH THAT? I don't wish to tar all white folks with this accusation, because most Aussies seem to be getting hip to the multicultural experience and know how to eat an Asian meal properly. But those of you who insist on eating in that very individual manner described above, I'm sorry but I just don't get you.

There are a number of reasons why this is bad and stupid:

1. NUTRITION: In most modern Western-style restaurants and cafes, most dishes are complete meals; for example, on your plate you might get steak with some salad, chips or whatever. Each dish in an Asian restaurant however, normally highlights only 1 or 2 ingredients. Examples might be a chicken curry, a plate of stir-fried chinese greens, or whatever. To eat only one of these dishes does not give you your full complement of proteins, vitamins and other nutrients. They are designed to be eaten alongside a number of other dishes.

2. VARIETY: Why the hell would you want to go to a restaurant and eat only one dish, when you could sample a number of different dishes? "No, I don't want to try your dal, or your malai kofta, or your lamb curry. I'm only going to eat my butter chicken and that's it."
What a boring, one-dimensional and sh*tty way to eat. Shame on you.

3. ECONOMY: If you order a plate of curry and accompany it with rice, chances are you aren't going to finish it - most Asian main dishes are a bit larger than one normal person can eat. However, if you have 4 diners, 3 main dishes is frequently enough, particularly when factoring in accompaniments and starters. The value for money is therefore much greater.

4. COMMUNAL SPIRIT: This is one of the most important reasons why eating Asian-style is a more rewarding experience. By sharing food, you are sharing the experience of eating. You can discuss the food that you have all had the opportunity to try, and become closer and more inclusive in doing so. Ethiopian cuisine takes this idea to its logical conclusion: everyone sits around a small table and eats off the same large plate, using their hands. It is more than just food - it is a wonderful communal bonding experience. To eat only your own dish transforms the dinner into a santitized, sterilized affair which places an artificial barrier between diners. So in conclusion - Don't make me come over there and tell you off! SHARE THE FOOD, DAMMIT!


  1. It's quite an incredible blog you have here Chris. You write well for a half asian.

    As you may or may not know, I used to work in a Chinese Eatery which served a lot of non asian diners.

    What tripped me out was when some peeps ordered their individual dishes which on their own were not only lacking in variety but in my opinion, on their own, largel inpalletable (...unpalletable? ah u know what i mean)

    Case in point, people that eat Sweet and Sour Pork by itself.. man how can you handle all the sweet and sour without some rice or savoury sensary accompanyment?

    In white peoples defence though (since they are largely undefended people) I think it just makes it a lot easier to order meals without having to think about what people do or dont like (makes splitting the bill easier too)

    That's not to say I never chuckled when a table ordered 11 Mongolian Beefs (one without capsicum) and 5 fried rices to `share' though!! haha you had to be there - it was soooooooooo funny (not)

    I still gotta try eating with my hands one day - call me up next time you do it (in a social setting) won't you?


    1. You write well for a half asian? Wow.

      Does the asian in most people deprive them of literary skills in your educated opinion?

    2. I am 100% certain the comment you are referring to is not only meant in a joking way, but is made by an Asian person.

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  2. Replies
    1. No, whitey just has bad taste and apparently doesn't know any better.

      But, dude, if you're going to react to instances of white racism, like.. I'm pretty reflexive about being a honky but you might seem a little bit hypocritical, if you're going to talk seriously about race issues elsewhere.



    2. Not to devalue your point, but I should point out that this post is from 5 years ago and was one of the first things I ever wrote on this blog. So something I wrote then is not necessary something I would write now.

  3. Also kinda funny when they eat the decorative carrot and then seeing the annoyance on the waiter/kitchen hand's face now that they have to make a new one.

  4. Haha, thanks Matt. But I think I may have eaten the decorative carrot on more than one occasion... I didn't realise it was so culturally inappropriate!

  5. Not exactly culturally inappropriate... probably just better for your health that you don't eat them. Usually they just rinse them under the tap and keep re-using them for as long as they can.

  6. So agree with this Chris; it's particularly odd in a place like the Shanghai Dumpling House, where you can end up eating a dish of 15 fried pork dumplings by yourself if your group insists on the one plate per person approach. Also strange as for some years now in Melbourne there's been a trend towards sharing food in all sorts of restaurants, via the popularity of tapas menus etc.

    1. Yep. Interestingly, class probably comes into it - I'd say the food sharing concept is the kind of thing that will take off in trendy Melburnian urban restaurants. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just unlikely to be a trend in say, food courts, any time soon.

      When it comes to stirfry type food, I think it really depends on your group, and also what people are interested in having. But, it's true that there's a distinct cultural difference there.

  7. It's really obvious in my mind. Some tastes don't require a montage of foods to be satisfied. You've also forgotten the fact that in the POW camps of the second world war that the Japanese man made the white man eat rice only and they sort of got used to the 'one dish' theme. You should also be profoundly greatful to those white men because it was their generation's sacrifices which lets you sit comfortably on your overnourished butt in Australia today enjoying the freedom to blog, what is, in essence, pure 'one dish' rot embedded in pure 'one dish' racist intent. Have respect. Eating manner is, democratically, for the individual to decide and not for a 'slap happy, food fascist' to enforce. Shame on you.

  8. Anonymous, I'm not sure how you managed to make the link between my post and POW camps.
    But you'll be happy to know that I don't actually slap anybody or deny their democratic rights to eat how they choose.
    I'm sorry, I realise now that there is absolutely nothing funny or weird about white people. From now on I will hopefully learn to take everything in life with deadly seriousness as you do, and never say anything light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek again.

  9. Gori Gori Chupke ChupkeSeptember 19, 2009 at 4:02 AM

    Only certain dishes in Indian restaurants can be eaten as you describe. The subjis, or what you might call "curries"... and rice.

    Otherwise if you are ordering dosa or say channa/bhatura, that is really only a once person meal, and Indian people also order those individually.

    Also, take into account that what my friends and family order may not be to my liking.

  10. @ Gori Gori:
    You make a fair point. But while I love my dosa and channa batura as much as the next guy, in most Western countries these are not as common as the curry-and-rice eating arrangment. In Australia, for example, South Indian food (often served in individual thali form) has only started to take off in the major cities in the last few years, whereas channa batura and the like are still not common.

    Likewise, many Chinese places specialise in noodle dishes which are geared towards individual servings. But again, most dinnertime group meals tend to the rice-plus-stir-fry mode of eating.

    Regarding not liking what friends and family order, that's also a fair point. I guess if you have considerate friends and broad tastes in food, this is hopefully not too much of a problem.

  11. Oh I love chinese food and Dim Sum!

    wonderful how they put all the dim sum in the middle of the table and then you eat from the big steamers

  12. I'm a *little* late to this discussion but I just wanted to comment - this annoys me so much!

    Mainly when I go out for dinner with a group of mostly white friends and they seem to just not understand the concept of sharing dishes, even when I try to explain that this is how the dishes are designed to be eaten. So then I end up having to have a meal without vegetablse or consisting only of meat because no one will share with me. grrr...

  13. @ Maya, maybe you can invite one or two white friends along with a group of Asian friends, and introduce them to that way of eating.

    It doesn't always work, though. I once went out for Indian with a group of people, and one white girl ordered raita for herself and didn't want to share it, even though all the other dishes were communal. I would have liked some raita myself, but didn't order another one just on principle.

  14. Hey, thanks.

    They're familiar with the idea they just don't seem to understand it or feel comfortable with it. I think it might be because the food is unfamiliar to them so they don't know what to order or how many dishes. It's easier for them to just pick one thing.

    I've noticed they're more likely to share dishes when the menus are shorter and have more detailed descriptions. I still can't convince them to order vegetables though.

  15. It's true that a lot of white / anglo people tend to eat in the way that you describe, but I think that it is mostly an issue of what is or isn't comfortable. Probably because of the structure of western dining. Personally, my family and I have always eaten in the "appropriate" way when in Asian/Indian restaurants, it always seemed natural to eat a meal how it was intended. This is despite both my parents growing up without much exposure to eastern food. Funnily enough, I've actually taken to eating individual meals of late, since becoming a vegan.

  16. And how do Black people eat at Asian restaurants?

  17. @ Blasian:

    no idea! In my neck of the woods black people are a bit thin on the ground. Don't often see groups of them in an Asian restaurant. On the occasion when I've eaten with my own black friends in an Asian setting, it has been amongst Asians as well, so they naturally go along with the dominant paradigm.

    So maybe you can enlighten me!

  18. And when you eat with your white friends in an Asian settings, it's not amongst Asians as well, and they don't go with the dominant paradigm?

  19. *cough*germs*cough*

  20. The reason we do that is just to annoy you.

    Actually to tell the truth it's what A Student said, we are just used to the way things are structured at non-Asian restaurants and expect every other restaurant to assimilate. LOL. If I wasn't married to a Malaysian it would have taken me a lot longer to work out the way things are done.

  21. The only person who I've seen do this wasn't white. His mother was Sri Lankan, his father was white and he called himself black. He felt very territorial about his food and he didn't mind ruining the meal for everybody.
    I don't think his Sri Lankan mother had anything to do with it, but in my experience (I've shared lots of group meals with white people) this is not a Weird Thing That White People Do.

    from Maruja de Lujo (lost my profile info)

  22. The guy who made the comment about the soldiers at the POW camps- WHAT?

  23. Maybe some people have food allergies, so they already know what they can and cannot eat in an Asian restaurant, so perhaps having one dish to themselves is the safest for them. Personally, if a customer is enjoying his food, why should the others at the table get upset if he isn't giving them some of it?

  24. I know how you feel, there is one thing that i see Asians do that really bugs me.


  25. @ Anon: Here's a post just for you then.

  26. After 22 years of being made to eat at pre-ordered Chinese banquets, I think I can provide one answer: It's possible that the one dish they're eating is the only thing they could find on the menu that didn't frighten them and also, they're sick of relatives they haven't met in years coming up and asking how school's going.

    Being raised by a man who will eat the most harrowing of foods has influenced me exactly none; if I manage to find something I want to eat at a restaurant, I'm not letting anyone touch it... and I probably don't want anything of yours, either. If I offer you my food, it's because I don't want it and am trying to trick you into eating it for me.

    That said, if anyone ever came up to me in a restaurant and criticized how I was eating, I would probably destroy them. So, you know. Watch out about that.

    This has really been more the profile of a serial killer than an explanation of white people's eating habits-- I'm sorry.

  27. I agree with the earlier comment that it's based on what they're used to in non-Asian restaurants. That's the norm for them. They may not even know about this other convention of sharing dishes.

    Economically though, restaurants love it because it ends up being more expensive when the total bill arrives. Party of 8 orders 8 individual plates instead of just 5 dishes and shared rice. (that's the bit that's more annoying for me. el cheapo me)

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