How to Eat a Fried Prawn in Hong Kong

bird cages hanging from ceiling in hong kong restaurantMy feet were swollen and it felt like there were hot coals stuffed in my shoes between my toes, after having spent the day traipsing around Hong Kong City searching for silk. Our dinner companion said we couldn’t take a taxi because the driver would get mad at us for such a short trip. “It’s just around the corner,” she said.

Fresh out of the shower and dressed, already my clothes were sticking to my sweaty body. My companions took off ahead and left me limping along behind. I tried to keep them in my sights, even as the busy world around did its best to distract me. I moved along the current of people who were free after a day of work, now off to socialize with friends or run errands on their way home to cook dinner. I tried not to get swept away in the riptide. Around me, visual chaos, neon signs with Chinese characters, here and there splattered with English words. Color everywhere, lots of red and pink. Advertising surrounded me with huge billboards plastering the sides of buildings, brand logos some recognizable and some not. We travelled up one street, dashed down another. turned this way and that. At a corner our leader paused, finger in the air, deciding, then pointed, “this way.” and off we went again.

To the relief of my burning feet, we finally arrived at our destination, her favorite seafood spot. The door opened and welcome air conditioning hit my face. We were soon seated in one of the close packed tables filled with families and large groups out for the night. The discordant clamor and clang of stacked china, and chairs scraping the floor was trapped in the small space, and the riotous babble of conversation bubbled up around us.

Perusing the menu, we salivated over each delicious looking offering. Our companion and soon-to-be etiquette teacher suggested favorites and morsels she thought we’d enjoy. One of the first items to land on the table were deep fried prawns in the shell. Huge, whole prawns, dipped in batter and fried in a vat. My husband pinched one with his chopsticks (he’s quite adept) and placed it in the center of his plate. When he then picked it up with his fingers and started to peel it, she tut-tutted, mildly appalled at this uncouth behavior. She explained that it just wasn’t done to eat with your fingers, and besides, you don’t want to miss all that yummy, crispy coating he was peeling off.

She demonstrated the proper way to eat a prawn. Pick it up with your chopsticks, suck and nibble at the batter first. When that’s done, stick the head in your mouth and bite it off. Now drop it from your mouth, onto that side plate. Now, use your teeth to peel off the skin and legs. Spit it onto the plate.

I found myself in awe, not only of the amazing dexterity this takes, but of how widely different proper etiquette is viewed across cultures. By the time the meal was finished, my fingers were cramping and bumbling as I dropped food from my chopsticks. This eating lesson had pushed all kinds of buttons for me about how to behave at the table. It’s ok in the US and Australia to use your fingers in certain circumstances: pizza, chicken wings, french fries. You do not spit food out of your mouth. If you absolutely have to because of a bit of unchewable gristle, you delicately spit it into a napkin – excuse me, serviette – hopefully without anyone seeing you do this.

While the server poured the tea, our teacher inconspicuously tapped her fingers on the table. When my husband refilled the tea, she did it again. Another learning experience! During the Qing Dynasty, the emperor liked to travel the countryside in the guise of a common man. One time, he was in a tea house with his accompanying officials. When he took his turn to pour the tea, the officials didn’t know how to act; they needed to show their respect without giving him away. What they chose to do was to tap three fingers on the table; one signified the bowed head, the other two the prostrate arms. Today, when someone pours your tea, say ‘thank you’ by tapping your fingers on the table top.

Well fed and feeling full of knowledge and a new glimpse of the world, we readied to go. Our companion caught the eye of a server and mimed writing in the air – the signal for the bill. I won’t be spitting in my plate, but this is a dining tradition I’ve brought home. It’s quite handy. I don’t know if it will work in the US. “What? What do you want? Why are you writing in the air? Do I need to call the police?”