Table manners in Cebu are far more relaxed than in Europe or Japan. The main problem for the visitor is familiarization with concepts that are unique to this part of the world.

Just about every meal, including breakfast, is comprised of two main components, rice (or, less often, maize) and one or more sud-an, i.e. viands. Unlike in Korea or Japan, both the rice and viand are loaded onto the same plate, though of course a separate bowl is provided for soups.

The dishes are usually served all at the same time, rather than one after the other; alternatively, they may be brought to the table as soon as they are ready. The Cebuano style of sharing a meal is inherently buffet-style. The rice as well as the sud-an are served in common dishes placed at the center of the table, or, on formal occasions such as wedding receptions, in Western-style chafing dishes. Unlike the Chinese, Cebuanos are sensitive about salivary contamination, and a serving spoon is usually used to transfer the food from the dish container to the diner's plate, even in a family setting.

While Cebuanos are great beer drinkers, alcohol is usually not taken during the meal, which is most often accompanied with chilled water or soft drinks such as iced tea or soda. The heavy drinking is serious business, and comes later.

Cebuanos often eat dried fish for breakfast, or something equally filling, such as tapa (cured beef) or eggs and sausages. There is not much difference between lunch or dinner; both will be comprised of rice and sud-an. There is a meal that is often taken in the middle of the afternoon, called a merienda - a small, hot meal. The merienda is the only meal that does not include boiled rice.

As in all ethnically Malay countries, the utensils used are spoon and fork. The spoon goes in the right hand - just as it does when you eat soup in your own country - and the fork in the left. The fork is used to manipulate the food and place it on the spoon; the fork never goes directly to the mouth. It may feel weird at first but you quickly get used to it. Knives are usually not found on the table. In the unlikely the event that your food is larger than a single mouthful, you may slice it apart with the edge of your spoon. Note also that you must use your spoon for soup; unlike in most other East Asian cultures, soup bowls are not picked up and brought to the lips.

Now, in informal settings - at home or at a restaurant that isn't too fancy - Cebuanos will often relax and eat with their hands, or rather hand. This is called eating kinamot. It's not easy; there is method and art to eating kinamot. First, there is a lot of washing involved. The hands are washed before the meal and after the meal. Even a grimy little eatery will have a bucket of water and a bar of soap - often laundry detergent, which works better on grease.

Are your hands nice and clean? You'll now use a serving spoon to heap the goodies onto your own plate; most often diners do not stick their fingers into the common dish. Once you have the food on your plate, use the right hand to transfer it to your mouth. While you are supposed to use just one hand, the taboo of using the other hand to help is not as severe as in, say, India. You will be forgiven for using your spare hand when dealing with, for instance, a chicken wing. The hardest part for you, the visitor, may be handling the rice.

It works like this. Turn your palm downwards and keep the fingers together, and press the rice down onto your plate, using the tips of your fingers to squeeze it together and compact it into a manageable mass in one or two smooth motions. Your middle finger and ring finger will be higher up than your index finger and pinkie, forming a small hollow. The balls of your fingertips will be pressing down on the plate, while the ball of your thumb will be turned towards your fingertips, to prevent the rice from escaping. A small mound of compacted rice should form under your fingers. Pick that up and turn your palm upwards.

The next part is tricky. Bring your fingertips into contact with your lower lip, but do not insert your fingertips into the cavity of your mouth and use your teeth to scrape the food off your hand. Instead, use your thumb to push your food into your mouth, gently sliding it along the channel created by your four fingers until it plops into your mouth. And that's it!

Barbecue morsels are removed from the cue using the hands and then transferred to the mouth; I once realized a diner at a barbecue stall was foreign because he bit into the chunks of meat and pulled them off the stick with his mouth, which is acceptable in other countries but not the Philippines.

Food should never come into contact with the palm of your hand. The soiled part should not go further than the second knuckle - you aren't actually eating with your hand, you are eating with your fingertips. And you should definitely not get food on your cheeks! But don't worry if you don't do well at first; take comfort in the fact that eating kinamot is a Cebuano art; Tagalogs do not know how to eat with the hands as well as Cebuanos. Remember that, no matter how clumsy you are, you won't do much worse than any of our recent presidents!


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