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.