Travels: The Way We Dine

As someone who has traveled to 20+ countries, I sometimes like to consider myself a collector of cultures. Culture collecting is essentially a combination of my 4 greatest passions in life: traveling, eating, drinking, and people watching. 

After all that field work and research, I’ve come to one all-encompassing conclusion: If you really want to understand a culture, take a look at its relationship with food. Seriously.

Whenever I travel to a new country, I always try to spend some time wining and dining with the locals. Not only do I walk away with a deeper understanding of that culture’s norms/values, but it’s always a damn good time. Good food, good people, good conversation. What more could one possibly want from life? Nothing. Except maybe a bed. Because food coma. #worthit

For today’s post, I’m sharing some of the coolest (and some of the weirdest) traditions I’ve encountered over the years.

Whether you’re about to take an international journey yourself or are simply curious about the inner workings of foreign lands, I hope you enjoy this post. I also hope it inspires you to pay closer attention to the way in which we dine. Whether that means doing some careful research before your next business trip or simply being more observant the next time you’re at dinner with new friends, take a few moments to appreciate the little nuances that each culture has when gathered round the table. I promise you won’t be sorry.

1. Argentina

This was probably one of the first moments in which I fell head over heels in love with international food/bev etiquette. In Argentina, the most popular caffeinated drink of choice is not tea or coffee, but rather yerba mate

One of my first social encounters in Buenos Aires was on my first day of classes at Universidad de San Andres. Since our professor was running about 15 minutes late for class (a trend that would persist in that class for the entire semester), my Argentine classmates decided to take the opportunity to pass around a mate gourd.

As I watched this seemingly informal encounter, I quickly became aware of the fact that this was very much a ritual with rules. There was a master of mate, if you will, who was in charge of preparing the gourd with just the right ratio of leaves and water. Once prepared to perfection, the gourd was presented to the first person in the circle, with the bombilla (straw) pointing towards the recipient. 

Although there was no time restriction or sense of urgency to finish the gourd and pass it back, it was expected that the recipient would drink all the liquid before returning the gourd to the master of mate, again with the bombilla facing the person recieving the gourd. The master of mate would then check to make sure the mate leaves had not gone “flat,” refill it with hot water, and present it to the next person in the circle. 

This little mate ceremony is something that can happen in any space, at any time, with any group of people. It’s not a super formal tea ceremony like those of Japan, but rather just a widespread norm across the entire, massive country. If you look closely in the parks, homes, classrooms, and offices of Argentina, you will most definitely catch a group of friends lounging in a circle, talking, laughing, and passing around a mate gourd.

Friends and I, getting ready to demolish some of the best steak in Argentina. 

Friends and I, getting ready to demolish some of the best steak in Argentina. 

2. Japan

First, can we take a minute to talk about how my trip to Japan was exactly a decade ago. A DECADE. You guys, I’m getting old. But let’s not get into that right now. Back in high school I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Japan for 2 weeks on a student exchange. I stayed with an amazing host family that very generously and lovingly accepted me into their home, showed me around their country, and taught me more about Japanese culture than I ever hoped to learn.

Some of the first things I learned about Japanese dining etiquette were the words spoken before and after every meal. It’s kind of like the Western tradition of saying grace before you dig into your meal, but with less emphasis on religion and more emphasis on gratitude in general.

Once everyone has been seated and served, it is generally accepted to softly fold your hands, bow your head, and say “itadakimasu,” which roughly translates to “I humbly receive.” This is to express gratitude for the people that prepared the meal, the animal that lost it’s life (if eating meat), and the good fortune of food in front of you. Upon finishing your meal, before standing up from the table, it is customary to say “gochisosama deshita,” which roughly translates to “it was a feast.” 

If you’ve ever been to Japan or even to a Japanese family’s home, you know that this culture is filled to the brim with little rituals and customs just like this. And one of the best examples of a detail-oriented ritual is a formal Japanese tea ceremony. In Japanese tea ceremonies there is a certain way to wear your kimono, a certain way to sit, a certain way to enter the room, a certain way to place your hands, a certain to receive the teacup, a certain way to adjust it before your first sip, a certain way to place the cup down, and a certain way to return it to your host.

I was fortunate enough to attend a Japanese tea ceremony during my visit, and I was absolutely blown away by the hyper-specific rules and instructions we were given as we were walked through the process. Tea ceremonies are very formal events in Japan, unlike Argentina or England or America. One wrong flick of the wrist, and you could be offending an entire culture! How crazy is that?

This style of sakebomb would probably be considered sacrilegious in Eastern Asia.

This style of sakebomb would probably be considered sacrilegious in Eastern Asia.

3. Hong Kong

One of the coolest things I noticed on my latest trip to Hong Kong was the fact that every place setting had not one but TWO pairs of chopsticks. I mean, I get that they are the utensil of choice in that part of the world, but two pairs just seems excessive, right? Wrong.

In Hong Kong, as in most Eastern cultures, food is generally ordered family style. Family style means that food arrives in big portions and is placed in the middle of the table to be shared by all dinner guests. This is the way I grew up eating food in my own household/family and the first few times I went out for dinner with friends and their families I was completely thrown off when asked to order my own entree. Um. What? No. That’s my dad’s job. Duh. I’m just here to eat, not make decisions.

So this is where the dual-chopstick-setup comes into play: one pair is to serve yourself and others from the family-style dishes, while the second pair is to actually shovel the food into your mouth. Freaking. Genius. I salute you, Hong Kong, and you’re refusal to cross the saliva streams. Good on you.

For me, no trip to Hong Kong is complete without dim sum and pork buns.

For me, no trip to Hong Kong is complete without dim sum and pork buns.

4. China

Obviously China has a whole slew of rules for chopsticks. Don’t use them to point at people/things. Don’t jab your food with them. Don’t leave them sticking out of your bowl of rice (it’s considered seriously bad luck). Etc, etc. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the way Chinese culture embraces the messiness of good eats.

In the states, if you go to a nice restaurant, order a soup, and then proceed to slurp your soup in a loud and noisy manner, you will more than likely be asked to simmer the eff down or leave. If you are this person, I encourage you to go to China. Soup dishes in China are meant to be slurped. If you’re not slurping, you’re doing it wrong. Seriously. People will actually ask if you if everything’s OK with your soup because they will just assume that you’re not enjoying it. When in China, slurps up. 

On top of that, the bigger the mess on the table, the bigger the compliment to the chef. I’m not even kidding! It is considered a very good sign if at the end of your meal you have destroyed your tablecloth. It shows that you truly relished the food and could give a crap about eating it in a dainty manner. Now that’s some next level nomnomnoming. 

Having noodles + dumplings for breakfast is pretty standard in China. #dreamsdocometrue

Having noodles + dumplings for breakfast is pretty standard in China. #dreamsdocometrue

5. India

Of course, no post about food culture is complete without mentioning the traditions of my beloved homeland. If you ever come to my house for Indian food, be prepared to get down and dirty. 

Indian food is almost always eaten with your hands, but utensils will be provided if requested. For some people, this seems totally barbaric and unclean. For me, it is the greatest comfort of life. It takes me to a place of pure joy and nostalgia where I can experience my food with all my senses. Rip off a piece of bread, break off a chunk of chicken, swirl it around in a tangy chutney, and pop the perfectly balanced bite straight into your mouth.

Because food is generally eaten with your hands, Indian restaurants will always bring you a small finger bowl at the end of your meal. The bowl is filled with not-too-hot water and a few slices of fresh lemon. This is something that happens in just about every restaurant in India: from the super-swank hotel bistro to the hole-in-the-wall dhaba. It’s the most refreshing experience after all that chowing down, and is a great reflection of how Indians go to great lengths to perfect the dining experience.

In addition to the little finger bowls, if you go to any restaurant in India you will notice that waiters will circle the table, spooning a portion of each dish into each person’s plate. This eliminates the need to pass around dishes individually and in many cases decreases the clutter of plates on the table. Just one of the many little things unqiue to dining in India, a country dedicated to quality service at every level. 

These are my grandma's favorite eating utensils: her hands.

These are my grandma's favorite eating utensils: her hands.

These are just a few of the observations I’ve made over the years. Of course, there are thousands of other little nuances in hundreds of other cultures, and I can’t wait to experience more and more of them as I continue to galavant across the globe.

I really, really hope that this post has inspired some of you to be more aware and mindful of your dining etiquette while travelling. Although you may not know all the rules right away, you can most definitely be a respectful dinner guest by simply paying attention to the behavior of those around you and asking questions. In my experience, hosts and dinner companions are always more than willing to explain their unique cultural norms when it comes to dining etiquette. It’s also a great conversation starter if you’re in a group of new people!

Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, take a few moments to familiarize yourself with the customs of the culture you are visiting. It can be the difference between being labeled as “that ignorant American” and “that lovely young lady/gentleman who we simply must have dinner with again.”

Simple, yet elegant place settings at one of my favorite NYC restaurants.

Simple, yet elegant place settings at one of my favorite NYC restaurants.

As a bonus, I've made a Fancy Feast Checklist/Cheat Sheet to help with your prep:

  • What are the seating arrangements? Are the seats assigned or is it a free for all? Will we be sitting at a table or on the floor?
  • What will the place setting be like? What kinds of utensils can I expect/ask for? Will I be eating with my hands?
  • When can I dive in? Should I wait for a host or elder to begin eating before I faceplant into this plate of food? Will we be saying a form of “grace” before we eat? 
  • Where should I put my hands when I’m not eating? On the table? Under the table? What about my elbows?
  • Is it considered rude or polite to leave food in my plate? If I empty my plate, will my host take it as a sign to immediately serve me seconds/thirds/fourths? Is it customary to leave a bit of food in my plate to show that I was served enough?
  • Will we be drinking alcohol? How much is a polite/reasonable amount to consume? Will there be any toasts? Will I be expected to give a small toast as well?

And that'll about do it. I always love to hear your stories and observations. Feel free to drop them all below in the comments!

Cheers to your adventures!
xx Nik

TunesDaze: April 2015

Spring has sprung! I'm not really sure what happened to April, but here we are. At the end of it. HOW?

I guess I've spent the past month in a bit of a frenzy. Working hard on a slew of new projects, celebrating warmer weather and good friends, and cleaning literally all the things. Seriously. Spring cleaning is in full force here in the bear cave.

And you know what makes spring cleaning a million times more fun? A fresh booty bounce playlist. 

Dropping this past month's TunesDaze playlist below, then getting back to bouncing around and doing all the things! I've got some great content brewing for next month, but for now just click play and go finish your damn dishes. 

xx Nik

Reluctantly Growing Up

Over the weekend I attended a pillow fort party with some of my dearest friends in this city, and it took me on a much needed visit back to childhood. What’s a pillow fort party? So glad you asked. It’s when your amazingly creative and talented friends turn their apartment into a 5-year-old’s wet dream by hanging and draping blankets, sheets, and tapestries from the ceiling to create tents and then litter the floor with pillows and cushions. Yep. That happened.

March31_growingup.jpg

Everyone in attendance was wearing comfy and adorable pajamas, but I decided to level up my game by wearing my Elmo onesie and sipping on “adult milk” (White Russians) garnished with Reese’s Puffs. Yep. That also happened. We spent the night playing video games, making doodles in coloring books, and unleashing our inner kids for a little while.

At some point underneath that blanket fort, I had a thought: the older I get the more I realize that being a grownup isn’t always as awesome as I thought it would be when I was a kid. 

Between paying the bills, maintaining an orderly home, taking care of your mind-body-spirit, sustaining relationships with loved ones, keeping up-to-date on worldly happenings, keeping up with the Kardashians, and getting enough sleep to not look like a zombie everyday... it’s a miracle that so many humans make it to the age of 70 without completely losing their damn minds.

Why did everything seem so wonderful through the rose-tinted goggles of childhood? And how can I get a day pass to go back to the days where my biggest problems in life were completing a few hours of homework and dealing with my little brother making fart noises in my face? 

I remember battling through insecurity, puberty, and general growing pains as a wee bear, looking at the grownups around me, and thinking, "Man.... they’ve got all the answers and all the freedom. I can’t wait to be a grownup with all the answers.”

And here I am. A 20-something year old living in NYC and realizing more and more everyday that not only do I have no idea what I’m doing, but nobody does. 

I vaguely remember the first time it dawned on me that grownups don’t really have all the answers. I remember it having something to do with my parents and a decision they were struggling with and how it was consuming all of their energy, time, patience, and level-headedness. I wasn’t particularly young, but not particularly old... somewhere in that gray tween area. But it definitely shattered all the illusions I had of growing up and finally having all my shit together all the time.

In that blanket fort of dreams, I started thinking about the little things that would light up my life when I was a kid. The little things that would magically turn my bad days into good ones and make me temporarily forget about all my really difficult 8-year-old struggles. 

Things like playing dress up. Or helping my mom make something delicious in the kitchen, or getting a new toy/book. Or the promise of going on an adventure to the ice cream store if I was extra good and kept quiet in the back of the damn car. Or chasing each other around with pillows in the empty living room of our new house in Jersey.

The more I thought about those simple pleasures and the theory behind it, the more I realized that I’ve actually done a pretty job recently of reincorporating them back into my adult life as incentives and treats.

A few examples: 
- Every time I get a new kitchen gadget (like my new veggie spiralizer which is LIFE), I spend entirely too much time in the kitchen tinkering with it and all the recipes I’ve catalogued in my brain from recurring phases of Food Network addiction. 
- What’s the biggest incentive I’ve had recently for drinking more water? It makes my skin look amazing and lets me play with all the fun parts of makeup instead of the covering blemishes part.
- Ever since I bought myself some snazzy new sneakers, going to the gym has been a treat just to look at (and show off) my bright pink feet. 
- And as much as I love the work I do, nothing motivates me to get out of bed and get on my grind like the promise of a big international trip on the horizon.

Same concepts.... just applied to my life by myself rather than my parents. And I guess that some day, eventually, I’ll probably use them on my kids too. So maybe that's what growing up really is: finding the methods of motivation that work for you and make all that bad stuff tolerable.

I guess the moral of the story is that I need more pillow fort parties in my life as I continue to reluctantly grow up. ......I ain't even mad about it.

Sending Reeses flavored keeses,
xx Nik