Jan 5, 2011

Why do Filipinos eat with a spoon and a fork?

Dear Filipino,

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

Dear Cold,

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.

(Blogcadre.com: Pottery Barn thinks it's cool, too!)
But you're right: It is indeed Filipino custom to use a spoon and a fork (no knife) at every meal, unless the Filipino you're talking about is the sosyal type.  What's also interesting is, a common decorative item in Filipino kitchen walls or dining rooms is a giant set of spoon and fork, the ever-present yin and yang of Filipino dining which has inspired countless jokes, haikus and a film.  But you'll be glad to note that this Filipino style is going mainstream because even Pottery Barn apparently has seen its coolness and wants to profit off of it.  (Some Filipinos want to take this retailing development to the next level and are hoping that barrel men be up next, although something tells me that the time is not ripe yet.)

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 askthepinoy@gmail.com.


Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot, The Filipino, for the answer. My family and I have always wondered why we, Filipinos, eat using a spoon and fork. Now, we have a good idea of the reason.
The temperature is still frrrrreeeezzzzing cold but we, hardy Winterpegers, are used to it. Hopefully, there is not much snow to come. My vehicle already has that winter-gray color. It's almost February so spring will be coming soon, along with the usual potholes.
Once again, thank you for the information.
Wishing you, The Filipina and the rest of your family a Blessed, Safe, Peaceful, Prosperous, Healthy and Happy 2011.

The Filipino said...

@Anonymous (Cold?):

You're welcome! Stay warm and HNY to you and all of the Canadian readers of this blog (third biggest group as a country after US and Phils)!

Unknown said...

Koreans also use a spoon alongside their chopsticks for their soups and rice.

And you could defend your eating sounds to The Filipina by saying "in China, it's considered rude if you don't slurp your soup loudly." They actually think you're not enjoying your food if you don't make noise. ;)

My Caucasian husband also comments about my eating habits with a spoon, but I point out to him that he's a little bit more "savage" whenever he pushes bits of food onto his fork with his fingers, and I ask him "why not use a spoon?". He's slowly getting used to using a spoon now, too. :)

Carol (via FB) said...

I'd like to reframe the question from a Filipina point of view: why don't westerners use a spoon? What is the utility of the spoon then if it were not meant to be used to scoop the food and place it in your mouth?

Errol (via email) said...

Some of the most popular Filipino dishes or what Pinoys call in the vernacular ulam are soups - sinigang, nilaga, tinola, sinampalukan. And you need spoons for soups. Recall that in Noli me Tangere, during the party at Kapitan Tiago's house on Anloague Street, Binondo, the starter that was served was tinola soup. Remember that Padre Damaso complained that he only got chicken wings while Crisostomo Ibarra got the entrails (atay, balun-balunan) which were choice parts. So much for the Noli aside, but this explains why Pinoys eat with spoons. You will notice also that the aforementioned dishes are complete in that they have meat/chicken plus veggies. So Pinoys, right after sipping the soup to warm their tummies, proceed with the solids and simply continue using their spoons.

Eurasian Sensation said...

An Indonesian here. Nice article. We are also fond of using our fingers, depending on the situation and style of dining.

As Carol above comments, the real question is why Westerners never thought to do use a spoon and fork. I understand the knife and fork combo when you've got a big steak or similar kind of meat. But the Western idea of trying to eat rice with a fork is just plain strange.

Personally, I almost never use a knife (I'm vegetarian, so not many steaks in my diet). The edge of a spoon cuts most things well enough.

I was also well into my teenage years before I realised that eating with a spoon and fork wasn't the norm. I just assumed that's what everyone did.

Anonymous said...

There are reasons why westerners don't use spoon, I think, one thing they thought of it as shoveling food into the mouth, that makes them think of eating like a pig, which is disgusting to their point of view. If it's about practicing one's culture or we're just use to do it since then, then it's normal,considering if we are on our country, but what if we're in another country that has completely diff. culture? as a sign of respect, we should observe their culture, etiquette, and etc, one should not bring one's filipinoness in another country, because that is rude, if your not use to follow other country's culture then why leave the Philippines in the first place, if you cannot leave your filipinoness, and why pursue to immigrate?

Christian Raeuber said...

Guys, you got it all wrong, the reason why pinoys don't eat with knives is because the spanish prohibited the 'locals' to. A knife is a weapon the spanish did not allow their 'locals' to have possession of at any time.

Christian Raeuber said...

Guys you got it all wrong. Filipino's eat with spoon and fork only indeed, and it was never a matter of choice or convenience or how good the food tasted because of the habbit. It is a matter of history.

The spanish rulers just did not allow filipino's to have knives (even for eating). So the filipino's just got used to it.

They never had a choice.

The Filipino said...

Hi Christian:

Very interesting theory -- and makes a lot sense! Do you have any authoritative source for that though? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I believe Iranians use the fork and spoon combination as well.
Pre-hispanic, Filipinos ate with their hands like the Pacific Islanders did.
Utilitarian approach? Possibly. SE Asian food is usually served in bites and doesn't usually need a knife or a fork to stab it with. Also, try eating grains with a fork? It's pretty asinine.

Coloapnosis said...

Sir, you make a brilliant article. A perfect combination of education and entertainment. Thank you.

Christian said...

Why do Filipinos eat with a spoon and a fork?????
As my mom told me filipinos before they ate with there hands they dont use fork and spoon just only now a new generation

filipino single said...

Her explanation is ethical enough. Our of my curiosity I also tried "Googling" who influence the use of Spoon & Fork to filipinos, considering we had been colonized by many foreign nationals. But coudnt find answers, instead filipino cuisines are also influenced by several countries like Through Chinese merchants, the Philippines adopted Chinese noodles bihon, miki, miswa, and sotanghon leading to the adoption of the noodle dish, pancit.

Anonymous said...

The Spaniards actually taught Filipinos to use "cubiertos" when eating because it offended their sensibilities that Filipinos ate with their bare hands. However, during the troubled times when the Filipinos were already feeling oppressed by the Spaniards, they took away the knives fearing that they would be stabbed and instead gave them a spoon to use instead which we have actually grown accustomed to til now.

Andrew said...

The spoon and fork are used in European fine dining, notably the formal dessert course, fashionably from the 1700s.

Utensils in Southeast Asia began with the elites who could afford cutlery (status symbols). This trickled down to the poor; formerly, the widespread custom of eating with hands.

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