Finally! Her letter is here. I was waiting for it for the past 3 days. Before the pandemic, Reshma had visited all these popular countries, kind of like a world tour, to gather information about different cultures, ethnicities, and most importantly, to taste the food there. She just got back to India, somehow managing to make it past the security, boarding, flights everything.
Reshma and I have been texting each other for years, although we became friends through an online website just a few months ago, it feels as if we’ve known each other for years. She can hear the laughs behind my texts and I can comprehend the sarcasm that lies within hers. This is the first letter that she has written to me and I know, letters? In this day and age? There’s something very personal and sweet in letters that a thousand face calls and texts can’t contain.
“Hope you are doing studying because boards are near so stop watching countless episodes of Parks And Recreation and listen to aunty. I have no idea when this letter will reach you but I hope it does soon. I’m stuck in Italy and the cases here have started reducing but we still aren’t allowed to come back. Fun fact about Italy, it’s offensive to ask for Parmesan here if not explicitly offered, especially alongside meals with seafood as it’s said to stifle the aroma. You know how much I like cheese, nay, love cheese and when I asked for parmesan, the waiter made a very strange face like the one you make when someone says The Office is not funny. After that, I got to know that many classic Roman pastas like Bucatini Amatriciana incorporate Pecorino cheese instead of Parmesan. Also, you should always ask the one who brought your food — not who took your order — when you want more water, wine, etc. The one that brings your food often isn’t, generally, the same as the one who takes your order. If you ask that person for an additional bottle of water, the person might find it unpleasant.
The pasta and pizza I ate were so, what’s that inane word you use, gorgelicious! They were so gorgelicious that I went on about eating it for an hour and apparently Italian culture appreciates when the customer takes their time and truly enjoys the food prepared for them. So guess who has 2 thumbs and is Italy’s favourite customer? This girl! We packed some pasta for our hotel room but I got hungry so I started eating it there and then waiting for our taxi to arrive when the people started giving me strange looks. Apparently, Italian people look down on anyone chowing down on a bus, metro, or on foot. It’s anathema to the whole philosophy of eating: dinner, the main course of the day, should be a meal that you simply sit and luxuriate in, preferably for two or maybe three hours. Eating while doing anything is seen as sloppy, desperate, and missing the entire point. The one exception, though, is Gelato. Maybe I’m not the best customer after all. But this is nothing compared to the rules we had to follow while visiting our aunt in Morocco. And let me begin by saying that the food there is as good as the country’s beauty. Much like our traditions, people must remove their shoes at the gate before entering the house. Dinner is typically consumed on a floor mat around a knee-high, round table. One is supposed to eat from the triangular area that’s immediately ahead of them, instead of reaching across someone’s area. I tried to do that once to eat some of my mother’s leftover dessert and the looks I got, I’ve gotten a lot of looks, it’s almost normal now. It’s considered disrespectful to take any dish which isn’t present in one’s immediate triangle.
Just like India, eating together with your hands is a time-honoured tradition here. You must always eat with your right hand, using the thumb and first two fingers. Using more may be a sign of gluttony. The left may only be used for selecting up bread or passing dishes on to people. Also, another fun fact, If more food is offered, it’s polite to refuse the first time, then accept a little portion upon the second offering. And that’s what aunt did to me and being the hungry beast that I am I accepted the food at the first go! The rules here were a little strict but they really made me understand what happens away from our immediate surroundings and how the world functions.
Though, I spoke incorrectly. The most strict rules I had to follow while dining were when we went to Japan. I learnt that the seating arrangement is one of the most important parts of Chinese and Japanese dining etiquette. If the guest of honour or most senior member is not seated, others are not allowed to be seated. If they haven’t started eating, others shouldn’t begin to eat. When raising toasts, the first one is made from the seat of honour and then, it is continued down the order of prominence.
One of my father’s friends there directed me to pick up the bowl with my thumb on the mouth of the bowl, first finger, middle finger the third finger supporting the bottom of the bowl, and palm empty. He told me that if one doesn’t pick up their bowl, bend over the table, and eat facing their bowl, it will signify bad table manners. Moreover, it’ll have the consequence of compressing the stomach and restricting digestion. Either one should sit straight and let the bowl be on the table (if the table is high enough) or lift the bowl and eat.
He also taught us the art of eating with chopsticks. Leaving them upright during a bowl between bites is taken into account as poor taste, as this is often how ceremonial rice is usually left as an offering at funerals. Further, one must never cross or lick their chopsticks. One must not pierce their food with chopsticks. Placing chopsticks directly on the table is unwelcome and one should instead put them across their dish or on rest. If you point your chopsticks towards another person on the table, it is considered highly disrespectful.
I found one thing very fascinating— contrary to what other customs believe, belches are welcome and seen as an indication of satisfaction (and a compliment to the chef!). I also learnt that one must always a small amount of food on their plate as an empty plate indicates that they weren’t fed enough and is offensive towards the host/chef.
And that is how food is eaten around the world. Remember this, whenever you get the chance to travel in the next year or so! I hope I get to go someplace new with you too!
Lots of love,
– Sanjali Sharma, Amity International School, Noida