Food Culture Clashes: Hogging One Big Plate vs. Sharing Lots of Little Ones

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a Spanish teaching podcast, in which a couple living in Madrid – Ben, a Brit, and Marina, Spanish – were discussing random things they did not like about each other’s countries.

The topic of food had to crop up. Now, you might expect a Spaniard to complain about British food, but Marina focused on quite a specific aspect, which actually applies to how main meals are served in probably the majority of European countries and beyond, including Germany, the US and Australia.

Marina said that it drove her mad how, in the UK they, cram all of the food onto one plate: the vegetables, the potatoes, the meat – everything tossed onto the very same piece of crockery. She preferred the Spanish way of being served a vegetable starter, followed by a dish holding the meat, and the potatoes on a separate plate. She found that mixing it all up ‘cancelled out’ the flavours.

My dinner at home just the way I like it -  a jumbled, frolicking mess. And with lots of veg

My dinner at home just the way I like it – a jumbled, frolicking mess. And with lots of veg – always hard to get when you’re eating out. I expect my Michelin star is in the post…

What often happens in Spain, when eating out with friends, is that the food is shared. Such a meal might consist of any number of small portions (“tapas”), half-portions, or of larger main dishes, which are placed at the centre of the table. Everybody has their own empty plate in front of them, and just helps themselves.

On the whole, I like this way of eating, because you get to try a much greater variety of foods, including new (to you) dishes, which you may not have been brave enough to order as your main meal. If you’re a bit suspicious of the fried blood sausage or the baby eels on toast, you can stick to fries, mushrooms and steak. You can always order more later.

The most obvious drawback is that you have to reach some sort of consensus before ordering, and if one of the party absolutely hates a particular food, or has an allergy, then it won’t be part of this evening’s dining experience. However, this is not usually difficult to navigate, because North London and Spain are worlds apart, and, where this issue is concerned, in a good way. In North London, what you get on a communal dining occasion is this:

  • I’m vegan
  • I don’t eat carbs after 7pm
  • I’m allergic to button mushrooms
  • I have a gluten intolerance (but only when it’s non-organic)
  • I’m not touching dairy
  • My acupuncturist said I have to avoid damp-causing foods
  • Is there anything kosher on the menu?

In countries where food is commonly shared, there’s very little of this kind of bollocks.

The other minor drawback of sharing food is that part of your mind is preoccupied with thoughts like “how many of these delicious croquetas can I wolf down without looking too greedy?” or “I probably shouldn’t fish the biggest, juiciest chunk of pork out the casserole as soon as it touches down on the table”.

Then, there is the pesky issue of the last morsel of something really tasty left on the plate. Who’s going to have it? It has to be negotiated in some way. Half the time, it just sits there, all lonely and forlorn, until the waiter eventually clears the plate away. I do wonder how many tonnes of food are wasted each year that way for the sake of ‘etiquette’ rather than because nobody wants it.

You don’t have to be concerned about any of this when you’re just served your very own plateful of Sunday roast, dish of lasagne or whatever. It’s all yours to enjoy, to poke about with, and to leave to one side what is surplus to requirements. You can offer your fellow diners a taste, and that’s it.

This his reminds me of another podcast I listened to a couple of years ago, in which a Mexican girl talked about the faux pas she committed when she first arrived in the US: taking food off other people’s plates without asking first. Now, if anyone tried that with a chocolate cake I was eating, they’d probably lose a finger. I was brought up in a barn, and my caring-sharing streak only goes so far.

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8 thoughts on “Food Culture Clashes: Hogging One Big Plate vs. Sharing Lots of Little Ones

  1. gkm2011

    This was one of the things Li (my guy) noticed when he came with me to the US, Chinese food is the ultimate “family style” experience and he found putting all the food on your plate at once quite strange.

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  2. Bea

    Ah, I was hoping you’d include the factor to horrify any middle class diner …. the double dipper. In fact, just two days ago I was sharing a lovely tapas meal with colleagues and noticed one in particular using his fork to go back for more, thereby generously sharing microbes and saliva galore with the party. Trying to avoid his misdemeanours became an art form, a game of chess where I had to anticipate his next move if I indeed wanted to eat anything and not die of TB.

    This is the advantage of a plate to yourself, unless of course you’re not as squeamish as I.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hadn’t occurred to me either before I listened to the podcast I mentioned…. I like mixing things, having a bite of this, then having a bite of that. But I think, it’s much less tempting to overeat when you separate it. I do notice that there are hardly any overweight people in the streets, compared to the UK and Germany.

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  3. Anna

    Russia is definitely more of a ‘share’ culture, especially with all the plates of zakuski and ‘salads’ (meat & fish concoctions dressed with mayo and bearing to signs of vegetable presence). But that London scene you described – gosh, dont I know it from New York!

    Some of my more annoying personal experiences involve going to a vegetarian restaurant (I am a polyglot as long is meet of some sort is involved) where there would be literally one or two things on the menu that I could get past my lips without cringing, and I’d make it really clear that I am ordering that one dish just for myself (usually an appetizer, too – those tend to be least tofu-esque), otherwise I wouldnt be able to eat anything here — and then look like a complete asshole while everyone else is sharing 10 different dishes. Oh, and of course I’d get the even share of the bill. Ditto sushi restaurants, because I generally only eat things with salmon and sometimes tuna and eel, so people would get like 2 of those rolls (so I’d get like 4 pieces total if I’m lucky) and the rest would be shrimp, lobster, crab, sea urchin, etc etc etc that I dont eat (urchin = not meat). And once again I look like a finicky asshole.

    Conclusion: only good food is meant for sharing.

    Gosh, I’m grouchy at 8am…

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