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.
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!”
So 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.
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.