It's high time we raised hygiene standards

As Singapore prepares to resume dining in - Phase 2 post-circuit breaker allows up to five people a table, and this could happen before the end of next month - it is time to think about how we can improve hygiene standards.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that things cannot go back to the way they were.

Most Asian cultures practise communal dining, and there is nothing wrong with it. It promotes feelings of warmth and camaraderie among family and friends. Many Western cultures do the same at home too.

The problem lies in the Asian habit of using the cutlery you eat with to also take food from the communal dish - unlike in Western cultures, where serving spoons or forks are always used.

The New York Times reported last week that a recent experiment by Chinese government experts found that the level of bacteria in dishes for which serving chopsticks were used was as much as 250 times lower than in dishes shared in the normal way.

A number of restaurants here still do not provide serving cutlery.

Some Chinese restaurants instead provide every diner with two pairs of chopsticks - one to pick up food from the shared dish and the other to eat with.

But while sound in theory, that system does not always work well in practice.

I had been asked a few times which pair of chopsticks should be used for what purpose. The answer is there is no etiquette rule - you decide and stick to your choice.

But unless you practise that at every meal, it is not as easy as it sounds. Often, halfway through the meal, one absent-mindedly uses the wrong pair and sheepishly hopes no one notices.

It has happened to me. So unless it becomes so commonplace that it comes naturally to us to adeptly switch between chopsticks, I'm not in favour of this.

A common poor practice in hot pot dining here is using the same utensil to handle raw and cooked food. Even though one expects the boiling soup to kill bacteria, it would be wiser not to risk cross-contamination.
A common poor practice in hot pot dining here is using the same utensil to handle raw and cooked food. Even though one expects the boiling soup to kill bacteria, it would be wiser not to risk cross-contamination. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

A recent experiment by Chinese government experts found that the level of bacteria in dishes for which serving chopsticks were used was as much as 250 times lower than in dishes shared in the normal way.

Serving spoons or forks are harder to ignore or forget about. And they can be used for any kind of cuisine.

So make them de rigueur. And diners should insist restaurants provide them if they do not.

But diners, too, need to do their part.

There was this guy I occasionally shared a table with at work lunches who would rummage through a dish with his chopsticks before he picked up the piece he fancied. He did this even when there were serving spoons.

I found it disgusting, but kept my mouth shut to avoid an awkward situation.

But if I see him do that again, I will be sure to let him know what I think.

In the wake of the pandemic, speaking up politely should be more socially acceptable.

How about dining at home, where Grandma may pick out a choice morsel and put it in Ah Boy's bowl? The argument can be made that people living together have so many points of contact that it will not matter.

At Goodwood Park Hotel buffets, staff are stationed at the counters to serve dishes, to reduce diners' contact with food.
At Goodwood Park Hotel buffets, staff are stationed at the counters to serve dishes, to reduce diners' contact with food. PHOTO: GOODWOOD PARK HOTEL

But good habits start at home.

Then, there are some Asian cultures that favour eating with hands, which is considered unhygienic by others.

But that is bad only if your hands are dirty - eating with a dirty spoon may make you fall ill too.

Otherwise, eating with your hands - after they are washed with soap and water, of course - does make food taste better. Try tearing up a roast chicken with your hands, instead of chopping it, and you will taste the difference.

When social distancing rules were first imposed in March, some restaurants adopted practices that I feel should be picked up again, even when things return to normal.

Goodwood Park Hotel, for example, split its restaurant front-end staff into two groups - one to serve food and the other to clear tables. That was to minimise the chance of food contamination, as the same staff member would not be handling both freshly cooked dishes and food that had been eaten.

At the hotel's buffets, staff were stationed at the counters to serve dishes, to reduce diners' contact with food.

It is a question mark whether buffets will return - at least in the form we know.

Genting Cruise Lines, which is anticipating resuming its services in July or August, has announced that buffets - previously a main attraction of cruises - will be replaced with table service.

Restaurants should perhaps think along the same lines. After all, diners may be thinking twice about joining long buffet lines or crowding around popular stations. And then there's the habit of people talking over platters of uncovered food.

Steamboat or hot pot is also a form of communal dining generally shunned by people during the pandemic.

Especially in China, one would hear stories of how restaurants recycle leftover broths to be served to the next unsuspecting customer. And it was common to see diners fishing food out of the pot with the chopsticks they ate with.

In Singapore, these unsavoury practices are less of an issue. Except for perhaps families dining together, most diners use perforated scoops to retrieve food from the shared pot.

A more common poor practice is using the same utensil to handle raw and cooked food. Even though one expects the boiling soup to kill any bacteria, it would be wiser not to risk any cross-contamination.

I don't see a problem with bringing back hot pots. The danger does not lie in the food or cooking method, but the poor habits of the diner.

After all, good hygiene is the first line of defence against the coronavirus.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 31, 2020, with the headline 'It's high time we raised hygiene standards'. Print Edition | Subscribe