Dinner Conversations: For Starters

"A meal, a ritual, the ceremonial act of promising to come together, to start the day, to end one, a tradition so old and embedded in our culture as humankind. A framework for how we lead our days, a true metronome of time."

Written by Marisa Lim

For starters, a meal: It can present itself in many forms; in a bowl, on a plate — with cutlery, with silverware, aren’t they the same thing? With just your bare hands.

Meals brings to the table many cultural differences; beyond the obvious difference in cuisine. Asians who eat “family-style” in the belief that everything is communal, or the Western world coming together as one, but individual in their food choices; a sense of freedom and expression.
These differences are deeply rooted in history and culture. The unifying similarity is the importance all of us place on such an occasion.

The beauty of all this is that every meal is different, sometimes you do meet halfway, and you steal a bite teasingly. And at other times, you know what you want, and you decide to go against your habitual sharing to maximize your intake of your favourite pasta at your favourite restaurant, even after your best friend says what? we’re not sharing?

Each meal is its own, holistic in its existence at a point in time, an embedded collection of singular moments that come together to form a collective experience. Its own ritual — defined partly by the culture of the space, or the culture of the people, by objects, by the environment, by family traditions, by the dynamic of the specific combination of people sitting together; by you.

A meal, a ritual, the ceremonial act of promising to come together, to start the day, to end one, a tradition so old and embedded in our culture as humankind.

A framework for how we lead our days, a true metronome of time. The decision-maker of pathways around a crowded city, an argument for fate as paths cross for the very first time, the means to rekindle, to discuss, to contemplate. A reason to be present, a reason to come home.

As diverse as the meals we share, in not even being able to do it justice by describing the limitless combination of physical setups, are as diverse as the rituals established and the moments in-between.

In this series of Dinner Conversations — we want to celebrate the ritual of coming together, we hope to highlight the anecdotes and stories that perpetuate tradition, whatever that may be to you.

These traditions can surface even when there is no conscious effort and here, I think about my best friends. Even as best friends, absolutely comfortable with one another, so close that all sense of formal courtesy has been stripped away, we always leave the last piece of a dish, refusing to take it, and when encouraged, we’d say, ok let’s split it, and we would rhythmically go around in order exponentially decreasing and splitting said piece (most likely already small) until it’s just a semblance of a crumb. I think of this as a ritual, or tradition in itself, almost like when the meal starts, we all anticipate it, it’s nothing new but yet we all partake as if in doing so, it’s part of a dance and a way to say, it’s you before me.

Similarly, in a more structured way, there are traditions that are consciously implemented surrounding the idea of a meal, and we begin to think of human creations like birthday celebrations, or any other cultural festivity, the way as humans we manifest a reason to come together. Consciously implemented to nurture a culture, to perpetuate a positive value, I think of the day, Sunday. Sunday represents family day. When we’re all at home, we set this day aside, sacred from last minute social plans with friends and an important time to sit around our round dining table and end the week with a comfort meal. We will usually prepare what we as a family call “Simple dinner”, which essentially is us taking a trip to the night market purchasing the most basic of street foods to come back home and plate them. All this, plus an egg on top. This was an important time for us growing up, and still is, as we understand the deliberate weight placed on family dynamics and the importance of it.

Each of these rituals is embedded throughout one’s life, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that others have similar rituals that come to mind but made to be their’s in the differences they celebrate and add to it; an egg on top.

Each meal and ritual has presented a sense of revelation about something, whether that was in the reveal of the food itself, in trying new things, or the assertion and official declaration of a family value, of ethics, or the teaching of a lesson, or in the further nurturing of my personal relationships.

All this is intangible in some sense, leaving only the setting and the things and tools we eat with that become mementos and tokens of these occasions; these tools are the vehicles for a ritual, the tableware, the more permanent and tangible counterparts of a tradition, coming to aid and embellish our rituals with plates, dishes, bowls, ceramics, forks, knives, spoons. These are items that are permeated with tradition, romantically imposed with so much memory and sentiment; they are objects that carry so much, yet weigh so little. They hold our sentiments and have been defined by what has been imbued by us, the projection of our memories and our nostalgia. These items give life and inaugurate ceremony to the ritual you have defined, they are the means of tradition. 

Something to pass on to others, quite romantically, but also their literal nature. In passing a plate to your right to offer it to your father first, or in the bowl that you’ve noticed holds the perfect portion of rice. We think a lot of the importance of these everyday objects, in all the potential that an empty ceramic bowl can hold.

We hope to nourish these in-between moments, in providing the tools and vehicles to celebrate these ceremonial acts, to be part of the bigger picture, the full meal and to aid whatever visual setting or thematic undertaking the meal is planned for, but also in the smaller more nuanced moments, the tactile and sensory feel of a spoon against the bowl, or the delicate curve of a cup against your mouth as you sip tea and think to yourself, yes it’s just the right thickness.

To end on a sweet note, a dessert as such, this article (seemingly obvious) was born out of a dinner conversation, a discussion of the importance of ritual and the maintenance of tradition, and even when things change, the creation of new ones. In talking of the creation of new ones, we will continue this series in celebrating a variety of perspectives and rituals surrounding a meal.