View: The Finns are weird about starters

I’m currently sitting at a dinner table in a restaurant in Finland. We had a booking of 15 people from four different countries – India, South Africa, the US and Finland – and two people are yet to arrive. The waitress has told us that we cannot place our orders till everyone in the party arrives. We have been shooting for the past three days. Today was a gruelling 14-hour day. We are all hungry.While my South African friend and I look expectantly at the waitress, the American at our table pipes up, ‘So it might take our friends another 30 minutes to get here. They have to pack up some equipment. Would it be possible to have some appetisers for the table till then?’ The waitress looks at us like we just dropkicked a baby. ‘No,’ she says, sounding unaffected and offended at the same time. ‘You order your own appetisers when you order the main course.’

The stunned silence on the table is broken by a loud rumble. It’s from my belly. The Finnish folks at our table look at us with pity, and explain, ‘That’s how it works here you know. It’s a Finnish thing. Everyone orders their own dish…’ Then louder for the waitress to hear, ‘…when the entire party is here of course.’

All three of us turn red, much like the tomatoes, beetroots and steak we were eyeing on the menu, and look down at our phones. I open Twitter because it’s recently so full of bile against minorities that it helps to lose one’s appetite instantly. I groan louder than my stomach when I realise that they’re also talking about food on Twitter.

A man shared an incident from his childhood in Sweden. He was playing with his friend at the friend’s house. At dinner time, the friend’s mother called the friend for dinner, and requested the visiting kid to stay in the room and play while the family ate. Why was he not invited to eat dinner with the family? Apparently, it’s a Swedish thing.

My South African friend, my American friend and I commiserate in whispers to each other. All three of us come from varied cultures. But what we have in common is that food is not a meal, it’s a language, a tool and sometimes a crutch. While the three of us gossiped (read: bitched) about Finnish eating habits, Twitter was serving up #SwedenGate. Most people were horrified – not serving dinner to someone who is sitting in your house, that too a child!

Were Scandinavian countries really that weird? And why would you make hungry people in your restaurant wait? How had no one spoken about this before?

As an Indian, we get to hear a lot from people from other countries about our food and food habits. ‘They eat with their hands!’ and ‘The food’s so spicy!’ We are so used to our food habits being examined anthropologically in all those British and American food travel shows, that it’s surprising when the lens is turned on to others.

There are many Indian, even South African, restaurants in Helsinki. But let’s face it, there are hardly any Finnish restaurants anywhere in the world. The only thing I learned about Swedish food before #SwedenGate was that Ikea sells Swedish meatballs along with slices of wood that can become a table.

There are, of course, explanations for Scandi weirdness. Finnish restaurant staff won’t fall over themselves to serve you because they don’t earn based on tips – transactions are a lot more ‘equal’ than the relationship between customer and server elsewhere. The Swedish response to #Swedengate was that feeding another person’s child is considered disrespectful, an implication that the child’s family is poor and cannot afford to feed them.

While food is the great equaliser, how we eat and treat our food and fellow eaters also reveal much about ourselves and our society.

Meanwhile, the door opens and the last two members of our party saunter in, unaware of the furore their absence caused. I turn my gaze back to the waitress expectantly. She’s beaming. It’s time to eat.


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