Saturday, February 4, 2012

Singaporean tables manners, Please.

At the dinner table last night, I was temporarily lost for words after my son asked me why I always emphasize on our guests to eat the rice and vegetables even there are meat and other dishes on the table. I soon realized that he is referring to the usage of the Hokkien dialect “chiak png (吃飯) and “chiak chye” (吃菜);as a form of respect to invite our elders and guests who are present to partake the meal at the table.

“Rice” ( png 飯) and “vegetables” (chye 菜) are the two main categories into which the older Singaporean Chinese divide all meal. Rice is the basis of every normal family meal, without which most Singaporeans especially the older generations do not feel properly fed. I can still remember the look on my late mother’s face when I told her we were having a sandwich for lunch, when she came to Sydney to visit us for the first time. To my mother, a meal without rice was merely a snack and not a proper meal. Her meal was consisted primarily of rice. It was only rice that was able to give its substance and worth. It was her staple and was still far more central to her diet than the daily bread of the west, ever was. ‘Vegetables‘(chye 菜) was the word my mother used for everything else, including meat and fish. Whatever “vegetables” were present that accompanied the rice, no matter how delicious, it was merely accompaniment that offered texture flavour to the somewhat bland but important staple. “It only added dimensions for the palate but rice filled your stomach! “ she used to say in disdain and chided at anyone in her hungry brood, who ever dared to complain about the frugal portion of food she served in hard times and when household money was scarce.

With most Singaporean family meals, all dishes are set in the middle of the table beside the rice, which is usually spooned onto a rice bowl or plate as the meal begins. Unlike the west, there is no sequence when eating a meal. You may start from a hot curry to stir- fry vegetables then some pungent sambal or pickled chillies, relieved by a drink of water. Although there are few constraints at the table, one of the few is that you do not take too much or too great a variety at one time. It is only bad-mannered to load too much onto the plate – it doesn’t matter if you are dying of hunger at that time. At a Singaporean table, do what the Singaporeans do, take a little of one type at a time, and mix with some rice. When that is finished, a different food is taken to be mixed with the rice. Happily, however there are no constraints on the number of times one can return to the dish but rather a sign that one appreciated the tasty food. But please leave the last piece of morsel on the dish for the host and said “chiak chye” in return.


  1. My parents are the same i.e. must have rice with every main meal. They will have a bowl of rice with sauce and not much else, which resulted in a lot of health issues. I.e. malnutrition related side effects. Way I see it, this had become a tradition out of necessities. In the old days where majority are poor and living in the farming communities. Rice can be grown easily given the geographical location of our forefathers. Hence rice was plentiful and cheap. I'd imagine it would help tremendously, if you have a family of 8 to 10 hungry mouths to feed and not much money!
    But tradition does not always mean it’s the right thing to do and should be followed! Rice is one of the lowest nutrient food around. It contains mainly starch (carb) and not much else. It fills out the stomach, but in doing so displaces other foods with more nutrients. This had resulted in generations of rice eating population with smaller physical stature. Just compare the physical stature of the southern Chinese and the surrounding rice eating Indochinese to the non rice eating northern Chinese and you will see the evidence.
    In modern days, rice can be detrimental as people are not as active as they are in the pass. Eating too much rice can result in an imbalanced diet. You see many in around Asia, people who are either overweight or skinny fat! I.e. people who appear slim but have no meat on them but still a layer of fat!
    I'm not against rice, it's just another form or Carb to me. I'm all for a balance meal according to the recommended food pyramid, to ensure we get all the necessary nutrients and not just hung up on rice because "it's our tradition"


    1. Hi Aussieporean,
      I like that name. Totally agree with you, a balance diet is the way to go. I am pretty sure eating habits of modern Singapore and the rest of the Asian countries have definitely changed. When we eat, we thrive to strike a balance, not only in the proportion of rice to conditments, but the balance of flavours and textures of each individual dish and combination of food values and nutrients that arrive together to form that meal.