It is hard to imagine the body-blow of the “dining table revolution”, which the Chinese government is now encouraging as a means to hold down Covid-19 infection rates by reducing general physical contact.
Designated serving spoons, no double-dipping, even individual portions rather than family-size sharing platters, have all been floated as part of a new need for safety. When you think of the banquet style of a classic Chinese meal, a table heaving with dishes so varied and communal that you need the table to spin if you want to get round it, the lonely portions of the solitary eater are going to seem like quite a comedown.
European cuisine may also struggle to adjust. The convention of individual portions, known as the Russian service, came to prominence in the 1810s in mainland Europe (though much later in Britain) and was basically a way to prove how rich you were (because you could afford the servants – it is much more labour-intensive to bring dishes out one person at a time).
The French service that came before it, tables laden with sharing plates, was effortlessly blown away by the emotional appeal of ostentation.
This century, though, the huge platter has come back to prominence. Spanish tapas took off and spread its conventions (lots of tiny, shared plates) across many different cuisines. Italian cuisine has its bursting, shareable antipasto tradition. There was a period when it became incredibly déclassé to order anything just for yourself.
And that’s before you even start to think about the all-inclusive buffet, beloved of cruises and weddings, where it is far cheaper and easier to feed large numbers of people with large sharing dishes than individually.
Meanwhile, the rise of the gastropub over the past three decades has forced the realisation that formality – far from being the whole point of dinner – makes most of us feel awkward. Steadily, food tended towards a more family‑table style, large shared dishes where you served yourself.
It’s not quite so much of a hygiene faux pas as tapas, so long as you use the designated spoon, but it doesn’t feel quite as safe as having your own plate and sticking to it. In short: we’ve all got quite a handbrake turn to perform, with the obvious rider that this is the least of our problems.
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