October 12, 2017

I recall in my younger days being banished to the damp recesses of the kitchen and forced to finish the remains of my meal. The gregarious laughters of my siblings who have had an early head start on our daily hour of cartoons, lighting a fire underneath me. I was being punished for not finishing everything on my plate at the dinner table. All the excuses in the world, not being able to rescue me from the inevitable fate of confinement and TV bans. Fast forward three decades later and family dinner is conducted in a non-conventional sense. Members scattered throughout the house, each nursing a bowl, chasing grains of rice with one hand and juggling their smartphone with the other. You see, as much as it is easy to blame the dissolution of the plate on the rise of Instagram eating, half of what it is, is linked to the death of civil table etiquette as well.

Sales of bowls are rising as people prefer more casual, one-course meals. One pot meals? Even better. Formal dining is out and casual eating is all the rage. Due to the combined effects of the change in lifestyle and food trends, people are embracing the bowl culture. Italian pasta, Asian rice, South American couscous and Instagram friendly smoothie bowls—all of these are best enjoyed out of the humble half-sphere vessel.

There’s that and the unspoken rule that food always looks more beautiful in a bowl. I think it’s the way the ruby red pomegranate seeds catch the sunlight or the jiggly 63 degree egg centering the beef bulgogi bowl, holding promises of that winning #eggporn photo. You take an overhead shot and type a short caption that looks a little something like this ‘Today’s wholesome hearty bowl of goodness’. And since a spoon is all you need, you have the other hand freed up to scroll through Instagram while munching on that noodles, making a mental note to visit this other cafe that has just dished out a new beef rendang bowl with a side of steamed edamame beans. Yes, this vicious cycle is why bowl food is so popular.

You might argue that plopping a meal into a bowl is usually healthier. Sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s only if it is a nutritious bowl of well balanced and portioned ingredients. Carbonara with pork lardons or chicken rice risotto (bless their hearts) just doesn’t quite cut it. The connotations that bowl food carry are undoubtedly healthy, tying in seamlessly with the food trend of clean eating. What’s popular though are grain bowl concepts which force consumers to pick from a myriad of grains, veggies, proteins and sauces; the result is usually sustaining and soothing to the eye, also tenfold more expensive than the regular economy rice you can get at a hawker center requiring nothing more than a green bill to pay off. Kale leaves peeking out from under a barrage of toppings? It appears you make very level-headed choices other than the pattern of that Lululemon yoga pants you are wearing to the salad shop.

To my mind, there’s a kismet of cultural imperatives that have propelled the bowl status to a king-like level in the kitchen dish hierarchy. The imminent death of work-life balance (You’re still free to work if you’re eating your lunch out of a bowl), the horrible fate of sit-down family dinners (when was the last time that happened?) and our addiction to our smartphones have relegated the bowl to first class. With the singular spoon or fork being the only utensil you need to tackle your meal, dining etiquettes are put to rest. My failure to grasp the proper techniques of chopstick handling is a testament of that downward spiral too. Perhaps in due time, the spork will see a resurgence, but for now, the humble half sphere is having its moment and restaurants and social media addicts are embracing its rise.