Tag Archives: chopsticks

What the fork?

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In Japan, curry and rice is nearly always served with a spoon. This makes sense when you’re eating something as drippy as curry. But my Western orientation told me that only babies and invalids eat from a spoon. The first time I was given a spoon I thought I was being insulted. But I learned that this is standard practice and in time got used to it. You certainly can’t accuse the Japanese of being backward or childish when it comes to food. These are the same people who can pick up a single grain of rice with a pair of pointy sticks, not to mention the inventors and/or perfectors some of the world’s finest delicacies.

But I digress.

Yesterday, I ordered curry and rice for lunch. The eating utensil it came with was wrapped in a paper napkin. Imagine my surprise when I unfolded it and found not the expected spoon but a fork. My colleagues, all Japanese, just shrugged and said, “That’s how they do it here.”

Just when I’m finally getting the hang of things, they pull the rug out from under me. Or maybe it was the tatami mat.

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Fork It

The standard Japanese meal is composed of some sort of meat or fish dish accompanied by a couple of vegetable-oriented side dishes, pickles, miso soup and, of course, a bowl of white rice. Proper manners dictate that the first thing you do is swish your chopsticks in the soup. There is logic to this: the rice is truly sticky and if you don’t wet your chopsticks, the rice will stick to them. It would be unseemly to suck on them, or worse yet, stick out your tongue to try to work the bits loose.

At work a while back, we were settling down to our cold bentos and  the woman sitting across from me stuck her chopsticks into her can of lukewarm tea. One of the guys noticed me noticing that and asked if I knew why she did that. I thought for a moment and the light dawned. “There’s no miso soup!”

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERASo today at lunch there was a woman sitting next to me and when they brought her spaghetti, she picked up a fork and spoon and swished them around in her water glass. Some things just get to be habit, I guess, but that was weird.

A Dojo Tale

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday was the last day of classes at the dojo for this year. To celebrate, Sensei planned special classes. There was a 90 minute boxing class, which I didn’t do, followed by a 90 minute Fighting Exercise class, which I did. I was right up front because even in a room full of little Japanese people, I’m still smaller than almost everyone else. Being right up front means I have to try not to make any mistakes, but of course I did. Ninety minutes of punching and kicking is a long time.

Head spinning, I dashed home to take a shower and then we all met up at Jyuppo (Ten Steps).

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAThere were over thirty of us and we managed to consume mass quantities of food and alcohol. Everyone got rather silly and had a lot of fun.

Dojo parties are interesting. The only thing we all have in common is that we’re strong. We all have different professions and come from different backgrounds, especially me. There have been other foreigners over the years, but this year I was the only one. I am perfectly comfortable with that, and I think most of the others are, too. But I do get the occasional dopey comment, like “Gee, you’re really good with chopsticks.” I just smile, but am tempted to say, “Yes, I’m glad I finally learned. I used to lap my food straight out of the dish like a dog. It was really embarrassing.”

There were some good conversations, though. I met a woman whose family name is Eda. I had heard that the name is fairly common but had never met one. I suggested that we get married so I could be Eda Eda. She didn’t realize right away that I was joking.

A Gift from the Universe: I think I worked out a deal with Shimizu-san, the best masseur I’ve ever come across, whereby I will teach his kids English and he will give me free massages. I don’t much enjoy teaching kids, mostly because I’m not very good at it, but still, think I got the sweeter end of that deal.

It’s Official

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I have been living in Asia too long.

The Thai restaurant didn’t give me a spoon today, so I had to eat my fried rice with a fork. It felt really weird. I always eat it with a spoon…now. When I first arrived here, that felt really weird. Where I come from, unless you’re having soup, spoons are only for infants and invalids. But I have seen the error of my ways.

A few years ago, we had some American college girls staying with us. One of them, daughter of Afghan immigrants, was delighted when she saw me eating curry and rice with a spoon. She said they always did that at home but her American friends thought it was weird.

We took those same girls to a Japanese restaurant and they all looked perplexed when the miso soup came—no spoons in sight. I told them to pick out the pieces with chopsticks and sip the soup directly from the bowl. They all gave me the you’re-making-fun-of-me snotty teenager look—you know the one I mean—so I just shrugged and told them to look around the restaurant. Everyone was doing it.

Here’s another funny thing. When you have a Japanese meal, rice is called “gohan”, comes in a bowl and is eaten with chopsticks. If you have a Western meal, rice is called “raisu”, comes on a plate and is eaten with a fork. Neither is EVER eaten with a spoon.

Hey, don’t blame me. I don’t make the rules. I actually experienced a sense of liberation when I accepted the spoon, and now have a much greater respect for the almighty spoon.

More Slurping

Rochi had a great time watching me writhe at the noodle shop today as I was surrounded by enthusiastic slurpers today. He says slurping is accepted because noodles are considered low class food and that no one but an absolute slob would ever slurp their green tea or miso soup. I’ve also been told that slurping makes noodles taste better and that it’s to cool them off, although why one can’t blow on them instead of sucking on them is a good question.

And I still don’t really get why they have to be eaten so quickly. The guy sitting next to me today got through a large pile of udon in four bites, six chews per bite. (Rochi counted. I couldn’t watch.) I’ve heard that it’s considered manly to be able to swallow soba noodles without chewing them at all. Rochi says it goes back to an ancient samurai tradition of eating as quickly as possible so one can get back to the more important business of killing people.

I once saw a short film about a guy in New York who loved ramen noodles but just couldn’t stomach the slurping at the local noodle bar, and finally solved the problem by detaching a pair of disposable chopsticks and sticking one in each ear. Now that’s thinking outside the box.