Of all food culture in the world, I love the Japanese the most. Before they eat, they would put their hands together in front of their food, bow a little, and say “Itadakimasu”. Which now casually translated as something like “Bon apetit” but actually has a deeper meaning like being thankful for the food they are about to eat. But unlike saying grace, this has no religious undertone.
Not just consider eating as a part of life — fuelling your body with energy, filling your stomach to shut it up for growling all day, this simple gesture actually brought eating to the next level. Eating is a ritual. And as anything ritualistic, eating has become a serious business. Actually, come to think about it, eating is always a serious business in Asia I guess…
Years ago, I watched a Japanese panel show program on television. I can’t remember the name of the show, but it is basically exposing something that is special in Japan, and let a panel of young people from different country to comment about it.
This particular time, they were talking about the traditional pottery making, where this potter made a couple’s rice bowls. It was a very beautiful sight, and very interesting process. But the most interesting thing is the end result. The rice bowl (meoto chawan) for the ‘husband’ is slightly larger than the rice bowl for the ‘wife’.
Apparently the implication that woman should eat less than her man did not sit well to some of the panels, especially the women from ‘Western’ culture. They found it either sexist, or unfair. The panels from ‘Eastern’ culture found it interesting, because it did not happen in their culture, but they were not offended and even kind of have that ‘ooh yea, of course’ moment as if realising that women in their culture eat less than the men anyway — so kind of sensible having a smaller bowl.
But how does this brought to the modern science though? When you are trying to calculate your BMR and TDEE, you were asked about your gender for a reason. It is by no means sexist or unfair, but women are naturally carrying more body fat, and our hormone works differently. Naturally, to reach similar weight loss result, doing the similar level of activities, women actually needs to eat slightly less calories. The ancient Japanese did not know this, but their culture already supported this notion.
Food Waste and Over Eating
My family is coming from Chinese Indonesian culture. At home, we adopt a lot in Chinese table manner. Loosely, of course.
When we eat around the table, it is rude to pile a lot of food on your plate. You should eat a little, and have some more if you need more. Hence we have small rice bowl, small soup bowl, and small plate where we put meat and vegetables before we eat them.
What happens here is that we only take food enough for ourselves in the plate. We don’t always need the same amount of food every single meal time. Sometimes we don’t feel hungry, so we want to eat less. Some times we only want a certain food and not wanting something else on the table. Piling a mountain of food does not make sense.
And just plain rude.
However, this way of eating actually force you to be more aware of your portion. Not only you will end up with less food waste, you have less chance for over eating as you will always try to measure how full you are when you are adding more to your plate.
Food waste is probably one of the biggest problem of our modern society. But in Asian culture it was a constant of the value of food. One most popular sayings in Japanese culture is that “there are seven Gods in every grain of rice”. You are not throwing away food.
Imagine how scary it was for me on my first Christmas dinner with my father in law. I was horrified to see how much was in my plate and the fact that everyone said that it is okay not to finish everything. It did not sit well, and still doesn’t.
In out culture it is also rude to pick your food, so since kids were young they learn to eat everything that’s already on their plate (minus bones, of course). It is amusing for me to learn about how parents from many cultures trying to smuggle vegetables to kids meal.
First of all, in my family there is no such thing as kids meal, parents and kids eat the same food. And hiding vegetables in meal like blending them with the burger patties are not teaching children to eat vegetables. They will still see vegetables as enemies. They might have their nutrients when they were young with parents trying so hard making vegetables ‘fun’ for them, but when they grow older and have to cook for themselves? They will still hate vegetables.
My parents wouldn’t bribe me to eat my vegetables either. They wouldn’t have to. They never said: “try it, Honey… if you don’t like it you don’t have to finish it. It’s fine.” What kind of psychological effect that can be to a kid? My parents would say something along the line “eat it, it’s tasty. If you think otherwise, your tongue must be wrong.”
We have no problem with vegetables.
Body Image Issue
In Asia we are more obsessed with being thin, though. That’s probably the biggest downside of the culture. Especially for women, there is a massive pressure to keep up with size 0. Thin and slender, and not slim and athletic. I mean, have you seen the KPop idols? Those impossible waistline is what we are aspiring to.
We are more susceptible to fad diets, and eating disorder. Until a couple years ago our parents never heard of ‘fat shaming’, and the only way ‘body positivity’ works is if you are positively thin. Our aunties have no problem being incredibly non-PC by calling us chubby, and pointing out how much we have gained since the last time we saw them.
In a way, if we are looking for an environment that will give us the kick that we think we need, we are on the right place. Our nosy aunties will be our harshest judges, but at the same time if we manage to lose it, they will promote us to everybody else (their next victims).
I have to say that I have a mixed feelings to this particular issue. I know how bad this perpetual verbal abuse has affected many people in my life, but at the same time I have seen a toxic environment which enable people to keep their unhealthy lifestyle under the guise of ‘kindness’. So I will leave this one open for everyone.
Phew that’s a long one… sorry about that. Before I finish, there’s one thing I need to say.
I know that this sounds like I am talking about Asian culture into one big lump of generalisation, that’s not my intention. It also seems like I am ignoring other cultures that is not Asian, and that’s also not my intention.
I was born and spend almost all of my life in Indonesia and surrounded by Asian culture. So I am using it as an example. If there’re similarities between these cultures with yours please let me know, because it will be interesting to compare notes 🙂
What I am trying to say is that our culture shaped our opinion and mould our relationships with food. And this is how my culture has affected how I see food.
How about yours?