A week after traveling Cambodia and trying every Cambodian dish we found (except fertilized boiled eggs, we could not bring ourselves to eat duck embryo in an eggshell), I suddenly looked around and asked, “Why do all restaurants have forks and spoons on the tables, in addition to chopsticks? This is Asia. Everyone eats with chopsticks.”
Victor and I were certainly eating everything with chopsticks. In fact, we were, at the time this question materialized, sitting at a small local restaurant, in plastic chairs, being served rice and BBQ beef by children in school uniforms. We looked around. No one was eating their food with chopsticks. Not a single Cambodian person. Slowly, we put our chopsticks down and covered them with napkins. Victor casually picked up a fork and proceeded to stab a piece of beef and lift it to his mouth.
“Stop!” I whispered, “No one is eating with forks!” No one, in fact, was eating their rice and beef with forks. Everyone was eating with a spoon. Victor put his fork down and covered it with a napkin. We glared around the tiny outdoor restaurant. The seven-year-old waitress in a cleanly pressed school uniform started hesitantly approaching our table, with a questioning look on her little face.
“Everybody is holding forks!” whispered Victor and started digging into his napkins. Everyone was holding a fork… in their left hand. Everyone was also holding a tablespoon in their right hand, bringing the food to their mouth with the spoon.
“I am googling this!” I announced and, in a few minutes, read out loud, “Cambodians generally eat with a spoon and fork, unless there’s a bowl of soup in front of them, in which case it’s a spoon and chopsticks. It’s impolite to put the fork into your mouth – instead use it to push food onto the spoon held in your right hand. For soup, use chopsticks to pick out the meat and noodles and the spoon for liquid elements.” How we haven’t noticed this in an entire week of eating three square meals per day, usually surrounded by other Cambodians, is a mystery that can only partially be explained by dumbassery.
Why Cambodians eat like this is not at all a mystery. Apparently, having been a French colony left a few marks on the place. Dilapidated French architecture, French bread, and Western cutlery can still be found widely around Cambodia. But, the reason the poor fork was demoted to the left hand is a bit more convoluted. Apparently, in his teachings, Confucius said “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.” And thus a tradition to use blunt chopsticks in Asia was born and spearing/stabbing/cutting food at the table is considered a breach of good manners.
And so here we were, shoveling rice into our mouths by tablespoons, as dictated by best Cambodian table manners. I then accidentally upturned an entire cup of coffee on myself, but I am confident Confucius would have had no problem with this.