Hong Kong: The Art of Eating
Updated: Aug 17
“The way you cut your meat reflects the way you live.”
Enter any restaurant in Hong Kong and it can be a daunting experience due the various beliefs and etiquette surrounding Asian food. Food is regarded as an extremely important part of everyday life and it is believed to be the foundation for all happiness and success. Superstition and tradition play a big part in all realms of Chinese society and dining therefore is no exception. It is always advisable to have a basic knowledge of what is acceptable at the table and perhaps more importantly what is not, so that you can avoid causing offence to your fellow diners. Sometimes even the simplest actions can have deep meanings, which are not always evident to the casual observer.
Look around any Dim Sum restaurant and observe your fellow diners and you will notice how their behaviour differs from Western society. People will talk loudly throughout the meal noisily slurping at their noodles without anyone taking the slightest offence. Likewise slurping your soup in public is considered a socially acceptable way of cooling it down before it burns your tongue, a practise which can take some getting used to. This may give the impression that anything goes, but try leaving your chopsticks facing upwards in a bowl of rice on the table and the likelihood is that at least one of your fellow diners will become visually upset and animated. The reason for this is that at Chinese funerals incense sticks are often left upright in bowls to burn in remembrance of the departed. Chopsticks left in the same way are assumed therefore to represent death and so consequently are thought to be very unlucky. Always place your chopsticks parallel across your bowl or on the side of your plate and never upright and no offence will be caused. Some restaurants even provide little ceramic or plastic chopstick stands especially for this purpose. You can even place them on the tablecloth, don’t worry about any marks, as a few stains here and there show that you have actively participated in and enjoyed the meal. Another point worth considering is that you must never cross your chopsticks across your bowl or plate as this forms the sign of an X, which again is considered very unlucky.
The only time it is socially acceptable to cross your chopsticks is in some of the older Dim Sum restaurants where you will occasionally see a waiter crossing chopsticks on the table to signify that the bill has been presented and settled. If you find an uneven pair of chopsticks at your table this is said to be a sign that you will miss your plane, boat or train. Holding chopsticks very high up is thought to signify travelling far away from home while dropping chopsticks on the floor is thought to be unlucky and the portent of some bad luck coming your way. Interestingly chopsticks should be held in the right hand only, even by a left handed diner although this is not as widely practised as in previous generations. Nowadays this is largely ignored although some members of the older generation still regard the use of chopsticks in the left hand to be bad etiquette.
Hong Kong is actually a very liberal and forgiving place and foreign visitors are quickly forgiven for not knowing the correct table etiquette to follow. If as a visitor you learn a few of the customs surrounding dining then your efforts will be appreciated and you will be made to feel more than welcome. I feel that just finding out about these customs is part of the fun of dining and can be quite rewarding. If you make the effort and ask, most people will be happy to explain their customs and the reasons behind the things they do. I must confess I love people watching and enjoy observing people as they go about their day to day business. A restaurant offers me many opportunities to observe my fellow diners and it is surprising to see how very different Asian and Western cultures are when it comes to food.
Traditionally the Chinese like to dine on a round table so that everyone can engage in conversation and not feel left out. Dining on a round table also allows the food to be placed centrally so that everyone can help themselves and feel part of the meal. Food is served in a family style where everyone shares the dishes on the table and single portions are uncommon. This is reflected in the seating plans in most restaurants where you will find abundant tables for family groups and hardly any cosy tables for two. The host will always sit at the head of the table nearest the kitchen or service area, as this is the least favoured position and often the position where the waiter will serve or present the dishes from. The guest of honour normally sits opposite the host in what is considered the best seat at the table and is always offered the best of the food. In a meal in a Chinese household the host would normally apologise with much humility in a display of exaggerated courtesy for the meagre offerings he has provided. The guest of honour would then insist that everything is acceptable and the meal could begin.
Quite often a whole fish may be served as part of the meal and traditionally this would be placed so that the head faces the guest of honour. This is because the head of the fish is regarded as the most nutritious part and as such should be offered to the guest first. The lips and eyes will be offered to the most senior lady at the table as a sign of respect as these are regarded as a great delicacy. Obviously this may come as a bit of a shock if you are new to the culture so beware if you are a senior lady and are ever invited to eat fish with a Chinese family. Lips and eyes may be nice but perhaps not the most convincing way to win a lady’s heart.
Once the guest has taken his fill of the fish he or she will often turn the dish to face the person on their left to signify they have taken sufficient. One thing to remember however is that once all the flesh is removed from one side of the fish you should never under any circumstance turn the fish over. Usually the host or waiter will remove the backbone with chopsticks allowing his guests to get at the flesh below. The reason for never turning the fish over is that in Cantonese society it signifies the capsizing of a boat and by doing this you would be putting bad luck on the table and the local fishermen as well.
Chopsticks can prove problematic to many Westerners but with practise they can be used adeptly by most people. The best way of holding chopsticks I have found through trial and a great deal of error is by placing your thumb over one stick while holding the other stick between the first and second fingers as if it were a pencil. Keep the tips of the chopsticks together by lightly touching the table and remember to move the top stick when picking up food, the base stick held by your thumb should remain stationary. At first you will probably find it easier to hold the chopsticks lower down but as you get more proficient try to handle them higher up around 3 inches from the top as you will find this gives you greater control. In Chinese etiquette the lower down you hold your chopsticks the lower in the social order you are but too near the top and you are regarded as someone who is false, so take care!
Chopsticks have been used for around 5,000 years and probably evolved from the wooden twigs that were first used to retrieve food from the fire. Nowadays they are commonly made of wood, ivory, bone, bamboo, metal or plastic. It is reported that silver chopsticks were used in the Chinese royal palace to ensure that any food for the Emperor was not poisoned. The silver chopsticks would react with certain toxins turning black in the presence of poison and therefore saving the life of the ruler or as was probably more likely the lives of his food tasters. Some people believe that the great scholar Confucius was also instrumental in the development of chopsticks. As a devout vegetarian he believed knives would remind people of slaughterhouses and so should not be used at the table. It is for this reason that Chinese cuisine is always chopped into bite-sized pieces before it reaches the table. Today chopsticks are used extensively in China, Japan, Vietnam, India Malaysia, the Philippines and Korea; they are also used to a certain extent in Thailand although as a nation they have become more westernized since the introduction of Western style utensils by King Rama V in the nineteenth-century.
Far from being peaceful chopsticks have often been used as an effective weapon. Sharpened to a point and dipped in poison they can be thrown with deadly accuracy towards their intended target. I am not sure how effective a weapon they really would be but hey if it works for Bruce Lee then they must be good! The Chinese word for chopsticks is Kuaizi, which literally means to eat fast. The Western name of chopsticks is thought to derive from the English phrase "chop-chop" which means to hurry or get a move on. Chinese and Japanese chopsticks differ, as in general Chinese chopsticks are longer and taper to a blunt end. Japanese chopsticks are slightly shorter and taper to a pointed end presumably due to the high proportion of bony fish in the Japanese diet, which needs greater precision to remove the bones from the flesh. Japanese chopsticks are traditionally made of lacquered wood while Chinese chopsticks can be made of varying materials. Throughout Hong Kong most restaurants now use disposable wooden chopsticks, which come in sealed packs. The sticks are joined and must be broken apart before use; it is then an accepted practise to rub them together away from the table to remove any splinters before eating. At the end of the meal they are discarded, a practise which in an ecologically friendly society is causing concern as in China alone close to 50 billion pairs are thrown away each year. In an effort to reduce this waste a five per cent tax was added to the price of all disposable wooden chopsticks in April 2006.
In Chinese etiquette chopsticks should not be waved in the air and when picking up food and the back of your hand should always face the ceiling at all times. Twisting your chopsticks so that your palm is in view of other diners is regarded as disrespectful and unrefined. Food should never be stabbed with your chopsticks and you should also avoid rooting round with them for the choicest items in the dish. Perhaps the biggest mistake to be aware of is that once you have taken a piece of food you should never return it to the dish. If you are doing this you are saying that the item is not good enough for you but fine for your dining companions whom you see as inferior to yourself!
It is acceptable in China to eat rice from a bowl by raising it to your lips and pushing the rice into your mouth, however in Korea this is regarded as impolite and your bowl should remain on the table. When dining with close friends or family it is acceptable to pass food with your chopsticks to one another particularly for young children, the elderly or more likely Westerners who have yet to master the art of eating with chopsticks. Once you have finished it is common practise to place your chopsticks across the top of your bowl perpendicular to the direction you are facing as this signifies that you have finished eating.
The use of toothpicks is another frequently seen practise throughout Hong Kong. It is not socially acceptable to place your fingers in your mouth at the table but the wooden or plastic toothpick is therefore regarded as an essential item. It is believed that the taste of one course should not interfere with the taste of another course so toothpicks are the perfect way to cleanse your mouth. The correct procedure is to cover your mouth with one hand while using the toothpick with the other. If you have dentures then it will come as no surprise that it is not socially acceptable to take them out and start cleaning them at the table even if you use chopsticks to get them out in the first place and a toothpick to clean them.
When ordering food in a restaurant for a large group the idea is to achieve a balance at the table by ordering various different tastes and textures with no predominance of one flavour or style of cooking. You should also never order seven dishes as this is regarded as food for ghosts. Cantonese meals can be messy affairs and bones can be left on a plate or even on the tablecloth. Some of the older restaurants will even change the cloth by bundling up all the items including crockery in the tablecloth and then just whisking it off the table. It is very quick and efficient and can appear quite shocking if you are not prepared for it but it really beats the hassle of trying to eat in a posh French restaurant while your waiter crumbs down under your armpit and tries to rearrange your cutlery to his liking.
When paying your bill or offering payment in the shops it is considered polite by some members of the older generation to use both hands to present the payment. Similarly if you accept your change with both hands this is also considered polite. Most people ignore this nowadays although from time to time you may observe this happening. This stems from the Chinese idea that using one hand is impolite. In general if you are polite and try to follow at least some sort of dining etiquette you will be welcomed all across Hong Kong. Show the people some respect and an understanding for their culture and it will be appreciated and you will be rewarded with the friendship of some of the most genuine people on earth. If you are obnoxious and show a blatant disregard for their culture then consequently you will not be shown the same sort of welcome. The choice is yours but remember politeness costs nothing and will always reap its own rewards.