There are manners, table manners and then there are buffet manners. While table manners at home might dictate not speaking with one’s mouth full of githeri, it is buffet manners that might require etiquette classes for that breed of Kenyans who fill their plates with a mountain of rice, mukimo, chapati and overflowing soup.
Then they look funny as they foolishly scratch their uncouth heads. Reason? Discovering halfway through the buffet queue that succulent chicken thighs and mutton chops are at the far end of the table!
With buffet becoming a common fixture in Kenyan homes, what with private parties funded by the disposable income from the middle class, learning how not to be excited at the sight of free food is as important as serving the little portions to one’s fill.
It is also important to learn about different types of soups and what dishes match their tastes. You should also know when and what to eat certain foods a buffet: Steak bones and ribs are a no-no during business lunch, as is chicken during a high-powered date. Fish fillet would do. You wouldn’t splash stew and oil that could smudge all over your starchy Peter England shirt.
Bad buffet manners are best observed during weddings starring your blood relations and those jiranis from your old hood in Jericho estate Nairobi. Office parties also provide a cinema seat view of low-life characters.
Esmeralda DeSouza Obwaka, the managing director of Spez Ltd, a catering by design company, has seen all kind of bad buffet manners at close quarters since starting his business 10 years ago.
“Kenyan buffet culture never ceases to amaze me. I have seen all kind of madness, from piling all the courses on one plate - imagine custard on top of beef stew - to picking food with bare hands as someone else serves with the serving spoon!” says Obwaka, adding that its horrifying how much food goes to waste.
“I have watched people fill their plates with triple their usual quantities. So much food ends up in the bin and not because our food isn’t good. In fact, we get extremely good reviews, but the people serve way to much!”
Obwaka blames it on inability to coordinate their minds and tummies, which leads to some dishes running out. “My appeal to Kenyans, as part of our New Year’s resolutions, is to serve what they know they will finish!” says Obwaka.
Emily Omwona, a food and beverage lecturer at International Hotel and Tourism Institute, also takes issues with guests who are clueless on what napkins are for “and some misuse them as handkerchiefs. Then there are those who do not eat with honour, they talk and make strange sounds while eating. There are also those who do not follow the table orders and proceed to serve before a chief guest or the boss.”
Emily has also seen guests order drinks they only see in magazines and don’t know how they’re supposed to be taken. “Some touch the serving utensils without washing their hands, while others change their minds after serving and return the food. Others are impatient when the person in front is using the serving spoon and end up using their hands to serve food,” explains Emily.
In her experience, the reason people get excited with buffet and free food is because of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to eat what they don’t usually cook at home.
Then there is the strange ‘revenge syndrome’ of employees who are treated badly and choose to revenge with food by ‘eating what the company steals from us.’
It is understandable, considering buffet is as old as mankind. The biblical kings in the Old Testament had banquets for the top cream of society and the royal family, and parties could last for weeks.
Even Egypt’s Pharaohs had an elaborate display of food. The same was the case in the Middle East, from where it was exported to Europe who polished it into the concept of modern-day buffet, originally referred to the French sideboard furniture where the food was served, but eventually evolved to the serving format.
It did not begin as a dining experience for bottom drawers and hence, the spectacle one sees during ruracios, weddings, birthday and company parties, where guests give the soups a wide berth and dive straight into chapatis, ignoring the ugali and poking one’s appetite at the biryani, which overflows the plate before reaching the green, mukimo, brown mukimo with njahi and on to greens and fruits and soda moto.
As for cutlery, Thomas Dudah, the principal of International Hotel and Tourism Institute says that if one doesn’t know how to handle them, “just start from towards and move inwards.”
When wines are served, Dudah advises that guests should know that “white meat is served with white wine, while red meat is served with red wine. Rose wine can be served with both white and red meat and champagne or bubbly are mostly for celebratory occasions.”