Saturday, May 22, 2010

Singaporean Table Manners and Tableware

There are few sights more intriguing to those born and reared in Singapore than the sight of someone eating rice with a knife and fork rather than scooping them up from a spoon. Different cultures observe different rules for table manners. Many table manners evolved out of practicality. For example, knives and forks, however, although common in Western countries, did not catch on in Singapore, perhaps as is the case in East Asian countries, Singaporean food is usually served in sizes suitable for picking up by chopsticks or fork and spoon. As a rule, every individual has his or her own chopsticks and a rice bowl or a set of fork and spoon(minus the knife) with a dinner plate at the table. An extra set of chopsticks or spoon is used to serve food from a communal food dish to each individual plate. The individual's bowl containing food is handheld and lifted close to the mouth, to which the food is delivered with chopsticks. While eating soup, it is not considered bad manners to make a slurping sound in Eastern Asian cultures; it is a major faux pas in the West.

Like many Singaporean families, each family sets its own standards for how strictly these rules of table manners are to be enforced, I am pretty sure we all shared the same threat from our grandparents when were young that leaving uneaten grains of rice in the bowl would eventuate marrying a pock-faced spouse.The moral of the threat as we know, is not to waste food. Of course, we continued to use this threat to our son when he was young, not so much on the wastage of the few grains of rice but rather it made the dishwashing easier.Beside finishing his meal with a clean rice bowl we also insisted that he addresses all of the elder members at the table before starting, perhaps telling them to please "eat rice" as a signal to help themselves, as part of the Confucian value of respecting his seniors, in which we are still trying to instil on him.


  1. You are so right about the use of tableware and having to brought up to eat with chopsticks or fork and spoon, i hate to see my american friends using the fork on the right hand.

  2. My husband impressed the guys from Finland because he "eats like a European, not an American." In a company run by Finns, that was a plus. He was brought up with very strict rules at the table. He can't stand it if I try to eat and read at the same time!(Just the two of us alone!) He also hates it when I cut with the side of my fork, and wonders why Americans try to eat rice with anything but a spoon.

  3. phil, in multi-racial singapore, there are two groups that traditionally eat with their hands. when i lived in a kampong, i noticed that my malay neighbours ate with their hands, unlike the chinese who used chopsticks and spoons. when i started working and lunched with my indian friends at race course road, they also used their hands to eat.

  4. Hi Lily and Melinda,
    I do notice that some of my American relatives have a different set fork etiquette at the table. They use their fork in their left hand while cutting; switch to right hand to pick up and eat the food.

  5. Hi yg,
    I can't think of a better way to enjoy curry dishes served on a banana leaf without using my fingers to pick up the food. As a matter of fact,the Japanese ate with the fingers prior to the introduction of chopsticks from China. Thereby, it is perfectly OK to enjoy your sushi with your fingers.