Why do Filipinos eat with a spoon and fork? We use a spoon not only to eat soup but also almost everything else. Some of us can even use the edge of the spoon to cut our food.
A related question is: What other people use a spoon the way Filipinos do?
Thank you and regards,
Cold in Winterspeg, Manisnowba, Canada
Bienvenue and warm greetings to you!
First, a big caveat: If you're looking for an explanation from someone who is an authority on refined and sophisticated dining etiquette, you've come to the wrong place! Read no further and leave now. Why? Because I am a pig when I eat. I slurp. I make all sorts of snorting, gurgling and other suilline sounds. I am oblivious to the world when I'm in The Zone. The best one can say about my table manners is that I do know how to really enjoy my food, much to the consternation and embarrassment of The Filipina, who was brought up in a much more genteel environment. Thankfully for me, she hasn't divorced me yet because of this, although it's fair to say things did get, well, quite heated at some point. A veritable macho, I didn't back down -- hah! [The Filipina approved this line.] -- although for the sake of marital harmony and bliss, I did agree some compromise was in order, leading to our household's now decade-plus-long Dining Room Detente.
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And being from Canada, you've probably heard about the famous "spoon-and-fork boy" who won $17,000 in moral and punitive damages against a Montreal-area school board and two of its employees following the 2006 complaint filed by the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) with the Quebec Human Rights Commission because the school board's employees called the boy's culturally specific way of eating "disgusting" and "dirty," among others.
Makes you wonder how the whole thing would have panned out if the Filipino boy had gone completely au naturale and used his bare hands instead, right?
But here's the deal: If you ever bump into those types of snooty Canadians and find yourself having to endure condescending language from them about how primitive our dining traditions are, you can put them in their place and let them know -- gently and in an avuncular tone to emphasize your moral ascendancy -- that unlike them, you're actually familiar with the history of utensils!
Here's how you go about it:
First, you start with the fork. You ask them the following (without expecting an answer of course): "Did you know that men of stature in Europe and the Roman Catholic Church once expressly disapproved of its use, seeing it as 'excessive delicacy'?"
Then, you proceed: "In fact, history has it that, in the 11th century, when a Byzantine princess who married a Venetian magistrate refused to eat with her hands, the outraged clergy and local populace invoked the Divine, saying: 'God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks -- his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating.' And as late as 1897, the British Navy forbid its sailors to use them 'because they were regarded as being prejudicial to discipline and manliness.'''
That should floor them, don't you think?
But you're not done yet, of course. Because before they can say anything remotely intelligent, you follow up with the history of the spoon next. Here, you can mention the following: "On the other hand, spoons have been found as relics from a period long before knives and forks began to appear."
"Therefore," you can ask them, "if the spoon was the first of all implements to be used for eating, why do you think we should get rid of it now in favor of the knife?"
Assuming they do come up with a retort, you ask them point-blank while feigning nonchalance: "So, are Canadians' dining etiquette more similar to the Americans' or the Europeans'?"
Wait for them to answer but whatever their answer is, you then go in for the kill and tell them: "Well, Canadian table manners are considered kinda primitive also then."
They'll likely ask you, "Why?"
And then you'll answer: "Because the truth of the matter is that when an American is dining in Europe, his/her dining etiquette is at best considered 'savage'; likewise, when a European is dining in America, he/she is the one accused of bad table manners. Why, everybody knows that!"
I can guarantee you that if you go through this exercise with them, they'll never look down upon your eating habits again!
The point here, of course, is that we really sometimes have to stand our ground and let other people know that eating styles are a highly cultural thing. Ask any chopsticks-wielding kung fu master!
But still, why do we eat with a spoon and a fork? And is this cultural eccentricity ours alone?
The answer to the latter question is no, because actually, the Thais and the Indonesians also eat just like us: The spoon is the primary utensil used for eating (with its edge often serving the functions of a knife) while the fork is used primarily just to push the food onto the spoon.
But again, why?
Stumped, I turned to The Filipina's in-law who studied culinary arts and accounting -- let's anonymize him by the name "Chef A" -- to account for this. Here's the theory he propounds:
Chef A believes that the use of a spoon and a fork is perfect for the way Southeast Asians prepare and cook their food. He said that unlike, say, the Americans who like their meats and other food items in big slabs and humongous chunks, Southeast Asians generally prepare their dishes in bite-sized pieces -- chopped, minced or ground -- thus leaving no real need for a knife.
Also, Chef A theorized that because of the humidity and absence of natural refrigeration in the tropics, the region's cooking style has evolved to take the environment into account. Hence, Southeast Asians tend to overcook their food through excessive grilling, boiling or sauteing, making sure to kill the bacteria; as a result, the dishes tend to be tender, soupy, saucy and/or otherwise perfect enough, susceptible enough and soft enough to eat using just a spoon. That's why, he adds, meats cooked rare are also not native to Southeast Asians because these meats would require refrigeration prior to cooking and also a knife for eating.
To me, Chef A's explanation makes a lot of sense. I only wish Chef A can also explain to The Filipina why her husband's eating style is actually endearing to his Korean and Japanese friends, and why that should be the case with her too.
Got a question for The Filipino? Email him now at email@example.com.