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The Power of Table Manners!

Hospitality BIZ 2018-08-09 15:03:00

Once upon a hospitality time, the Grand Panjandrum of a Northern State invited the head of a West Asian Nation and his wife to a formal banquet. Many of their fellow guests were important netas from traditional rural backgrounds. A delectable meal of many regional specialities was duly served, with all pomp and circumstance, and everyone got down to the important business of eating. That’s when things went wrong.

Unexpectedly, and very humiliatingly for the host, the VVIP’s wife got up and walked out. Her husband followed a little later.

So, what had gone wrong? No one really knows but, according to the thickest and fastest rumours, the West Asian couple could not stomach the table manners of the other guests. Many of the netas slurped their food, chewed with their mouths open, wiped their gravy-dripping fingers on white damask napkins, rinsed their mouths with water before swallowing it and, finally, in a round orchestration of appreciation, everyone burped loudly and aromatically!

Have we exaggerated the scene? No. But our informants probably did: the Grand Panjandrum is not a particularly pleasant character. So, do we have to change our habits to suit foreigners? Of course, not: we have our own Ancient Cultural Heritage. In fact, in eating alone we have a great range of customs. Finicky princely families often try to touch food with just the upper half of the digits of the fingers of their right hand. Many southern rice eaters, in marked contrast, prefer to mash their rice and other delectables into succulent balls before popping them into their mouths. And those unused to the Vale’s dining traditions would be dismayed with the shared custom of the wazwan. Even they, however, would not be as bewildered as the average finger-licking guest when confronted by the array of cutlery and glasses laid out at a formal western-style banquet.

So, what should we do? Should we say “Clear away all this silver and crystal and give me a good, old-fashioned, thali. I’m desi and if you want my business you conform to my Ancient Cultural Heritage!”? We could but, somehow, we don’t think we would. Even the Chinese, who are very proud of their ancient traditions, provide chopsticks for their guests at formal banquets but, in deference to international conventions, lay out all the right cutlery in the proper order.

So, what is the proper order? Generally, the first dish requires the cutlery at the outer ends. But then what do you do with those awkward implements laid at the top of your setting at right angles to the others? Those are generally meant for soup and dessert: generally, but not always. Sometimes, soup is served before guests sit down, in which case it is offered in either cups or bowls, Chinese-style. If bowls are used, then they are accompanied with ceramic spoons, usually. But if soup is served at the table then it could be in circular soup-plates in which case diners use soup spoons.

Complicated? Yes, it could be, particularly when you are conscious that other guests are looking at you. One way out is to wait till others have started to eat, and do what they are doing, but this does not always work. Once, an important desi noticed that his neighbour at the table drank her coffee with the little finger of her right hand raised like a tiny flag pole. He thought it looked very elegant, so he imitated her. After dinner the elegant woman walked up to him and said “You drink your coffee the way I do. I broke my little finger playing tennis when I was a girl: I can’t bend it. How did you break yours?” He had to mumble something about kabbadi which left her very confused!

The point of this column is really very simple. We are living in a transitional age. Under the relentless barrage of the Internet we have to move fast even to stay in place! Upscale hotels should offer courses in Dining Etiquette: that sounds better than ‘Table Manners’. If they included a segment in napkin folding it would dilute any social embarrassment associated with the need to learn the Power of Good Manners!