I was once conducting a residential training programme in London, at a city hotel, for an Indian software company. When I came down one morning and joined the personnel manager, Ravi, at the breakfast table, I was shocked. Having already started his breakfast, Ravi was busy pushing a piece of his mushroom omelette into his mouth– with this knife! If he had pushed it any further, he would have slit his gullet – and we would have lost our beloved personnel manager! The people at the adjoining tables were also watching with amazement – and shock. Ravi had been in London for two years. He had plenty of time to learn how to use a fork and knife. But he did not take the trouble to do this. It was the arrogance of ‘I know it all’ – or worse, ‘I will do it my way’ – or even worse, ‘It does not matter how anyone else does it – to each his own’.
Forks and knives were developed in the West, only a few centuries ago. They ate with their fingers until the 1600s. But when they began using ‘table instruments’, they also developed the ‘etiquette’ to use these. The tables are set with forks on the left of the plate, and knives on the right – and the simplest rule is to begin working ‘from outside in’. First, the round-shaped spoon on the right is for the soup. Then, the fish fork and knife. Then the meat fork and knife. Then the last (and smallest) fork and knife, closest to the plate, for the salad. This pair breaks the rule. If the salad is served first, as the first course, then this pair will be used, although it is the innermost. If the salad is served with the entrée as an accompaniment – then the entrée (meat) fork may be also used for the salad.
The Western world is divided into two parts. The Europeans put the food in their mouth only with the fork in the left hand. The Americans first cut the meat or fish into pieces and then put the knife aside (on the rim of the plate between 11 and 2 on the clock), transfer the fork to the right hand and then use it to put the food in the mouth. The Europeans will not accept this; but, in America, it is acceptable and generally done. Among the Europeans, the Italians will use the fork with the right hand to roll the spaghetti round the tines and then eat it. Those who do not ‘know’ will use a fork and spoon to eat the spaghetti – and Italians will look on, aghast.‘It’s just not done’.
The glassware is always on the right in the West, since the right hand is clean due to the use of knife and fork. In India and the Middle East, where one eats with fingers, the glass for water or beverages is always on the left – since eating is done with the right hand. The glassware placement may seem complicated in the Western mode. At formal sit-down dinners, there will be the narrower glass for white wine (above the fish knife); the broader one for red wine (above the meat knife), the largest goblet for water. This may also be an inadvertent but fortuitous hint that one is supposed to drink more water than wine.Sometimes, there may be a funnelled glass for champagne at the last – but this is not common.
In other parts of the world, where water is the only drink served, there are no such complications. One is spared the stress of making choices. If you are at a Chinese meal, there is, of course, the small cup of Chinese green tea.Make sure that you keep sipping it slowly – because etiquette demands that your host (or the waiter) keep refilling the cup with ‘hot tea’. The faster you finish, the quicker the replenishment.
Finally, the important thing is to do in Rome as the Romans do. Use the fork in the right hand in America, in the left hand in Europe; and, of course, the right hand itself, without any of these implements, in India and the Middle East.