Changing Communal Eating Culture

Date : 26 May 2020

Report Version

ASEAN Geography and Its Influence on Local Food

ASEAN is located in the tropics comprising the mainland countries and maritime countries.  The distinctive geographical feature makes ASEAN a region of rich terrestrial and marine biodiversity.  Being recognized as one of the world’s most productive agricultural region, ASEAN is a cradle of rice and crop cultivation extensively on the highlands, lowlands and river plains.  The long coastline is also home to enormous marine life which is ideal for fishery.  Therefore, the abundance of supply and ingredients always shows in an immense variety of local food in ASEAN that different regions in different countries can create their own traditional delicacies with unique flavors due to the influence from location and climate.    

Eating is A Communal Affair

Rice is a principal diet in many ASEAN countries.  People eat rice with several options of food.  It is a usual scene to find a dining table full of dishes sided by other condiments whereas each diner has their own personal bowl or plate of rice and all those menus are to be shared among diners who sit at the same table.  In ASEAN, a meal is often eaten communally among family and friends.  So, having a meal is more of a gathering time.  Piling the food on rice plates to finish is not a local etiquette.  On the other hand, having a little at a time and going for more from the shared plates are generally practiced.   So, one is encouraged to spend dining time interacting with others.  In this sense of eating customs, in a busy restaurant, it is possible that customers are asked to sit with another group if seats next to them are still vacant.

Chopsticks and spoons are widely used for eating, taking foods from shared plates and serving others.  It is recommended for those who eat with spoons to use separate serving spoons while it is found less common for chopsticks users to have public chopsticks.  The idea of serving utensils is to prevent cross-contamination and transmission of germs.

Coronavirus’s Effect on Dining Culture

According to the recent global pandemic, the lockdown measures are implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19.  Restaurants are closed to dine-in service to keep the social distancing and are restricted to takeout orders and delivery only.  Other social gatherings are also banned all over the world.  The communal eating tradition is, therefore, facing a big challenge. 

The SG Clean campaign was launched in February 2020 by the National Environment Agency (NEA), Singapore, to raise the action needed from everyone to adopt good personal habits and social responsibility, raise public hygiene standards and make them the new norms.  “Asians like to share our food.  No double dipping. Please use a serving spoon when sharing. Better still, for now don’t share food”, said Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources.  Despite the tradition of sharing food, using serving spoons is encouraged nationwide and everyone should implement it as a new social norm.    

Eating Habit Changing after Lockdown 

The lower number of new infected cases enforces the lockdown relaxation.  Easing the lockdown in many countries result in the reopening of restaurants, shops, malls, barbers’ and public parks.  However, social distancing is still applied and hygiene is strictly concerned.  Large tables are usually separated by barriers to help customers keep apart from one another.  Since the communal eating culture is a social affair and a sign of intimacy, a big restaurant chain in Thailand never fails to offer lonely customers a bit of company by providing a mascot doll of the restaurant’s on the opposite seat.

New Business Model for the New Normal

It is a challenging task for restaurants to adopt the new normal in order to ensure the hygiene, food safety and customers’ satisfactory eating experience.  At the same time, when the number of dine-in customers is limited, an appropriate business model should also be considered.

Reference:

  1. Introduction to Southeast Asia: https://asiasociety.org/education/introduction-southeast-asia
  2. Restaurants look for different business model as country shifts to new normal: https://www.cnnphilippines.com/business/2020/5/12/restaurant-industry-business-model-coronavirus.html
  3. SG Clean: https://www.sgclean.gov.sg
  4. Social distance, party of one: https://fortune.com/2020/05/22/how-to-reopen-restaurants-social-distancing-coronavirus/

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