Have you eaten rice? Saying hello in Cambodia

16 August 2010 at 07:30 11 comments

The standard salutation in Cambodia is Sua s’dai, “Hello,” followed by Nham bay howie nov? or “Have you eaten?” For the rest of the day, if you see someone a second or third time you don’t need to bother with any greeting–other than inquiring about their lunch or dinner.

This isn’t limited to when speaking Khmer, either. When I arrive at work at MAXIMA, my co-workers immediately ask me–in English–if I have had breakfast. Kiva borrowers ask me, via the credit officers, if I’ve eaten yet when I arrive at their doorsteps. Whenever I come back from running errands at lunchtime, I am greeted with, “Have you eaten yet?”

This is a standard greeting in Cambodia, meant mainly as a conversational ice-breaker, much as the weather is to the English. However, I can’t help but feel comforted that so many people are seemingly concerned with my caloric intake. When I run into the MAXIMA CEO, Kimseng, eating a giant bowl of noodles at 8am, he says “Have you had breakfast?” When I tell him I have, he asks, “Do you want more breakfast?”

Like the stereotypical Italian and Jewish mothers seen in so many comedy routines, my colleagues are unduly interested in how much, and what, I eat. “You are so big,” one of the credit officers said to me, confused, “but you don’t eat much rice.” And it’s true. I tower over most of the men in Cambodia where the people have slight, delicate frames. And despite their backbreaking work in the rice paddies, I am the one with the farmer’s broad shoulders and big feet.

And yet somehow I manage to eat less rice than they do. Every day we have lunch together at MAXIMA. It is standard practice for each person to start with a large bowl of rice and add small portions of the vegetable and meat dishes, a few bites at a time. Soon, the bowl of rice is gone and everyone, including the girls that weigh half what I do, serve themselves a second bowl of rice.

Yesterday someone said to me over lunch, “You say that you like it, but you don’t eat much.” Never in my life have I been accused of being a dainty eater until I arrived in Cambodia. In my normal life I’m more often equated to a human garbage disposal, but here they worry that I don’t eat enough rice.

“Have you eaten?” is a regular greeting in not just Cambodia but China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, parts of Laos, India and in some of the indigenous populations that are spread throughout Asia. In many of these languages, as with Khmer, the literal translation is “Have you eaten rice?”

Many people believe that the expression originated due to the famines and food shortages that all of these countries have experienced in the past. Others believe that the expression merely shows the great priority these cultures place on food, and the social aspect of meals–how food brings people together. When the English talk about the weather, it is a way to make conversation while still maintaining an impenetrable distance. But asking about what, or if, you’ve eaten is warmly personal, and if you answer no and someone offers to feed you, it’s downright chummy.

While I was writing this, the Kiva Coordinator, Sophal, just peeked at my computer to see what I was working on and, while doing so, split a large, starchy sweet potato, called dam long, with her hands and handed me half. I went to get a glass of water and while in the kitchen I was asked, “Have you finished your breakfast yet?” Yes, I answered, comforted by the fact that someone cared enough to ask.

Lina Goldberg is a Kiva Fellow at MAXIMA Mikroheranhvatho, Co., Ltd. in Cambodia. She has eaten rice twice so far today.

Entry filed under: Cambodia, KF12 (Kiva Fellows 12th Class), MAXIMA Mikroheranhvatho Co., Ltd.. Tags: , , , .

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  • 1. rachel  |  7 September 2010 at 13:02

    Do they require a lot of carbs because they are so physically active? Do they use a lot of medicinal herbs in their cooking? Their food looks very healthful, if high sodium.

  • 2. David Oglaza  |  17 August 2010 at 11:52

    When I spent time in Nepal ten years they have a similar saying ‘kana khana’ have you eaten? It was the first time I had come across this saying and yes its too do with the importance of food and maybe the recognition that not everyone has this food every day.

  • 3. WonderMike  |  17 August 2010 at 11:50

    I would rather be asked, “Have you had a cocktail yet?”

  • 4. Lorena  |  17 August 2010 at 09:48

    Your post made me want lunch now! We´ll be having lunch in 15 min. cannot wait. It´s like clock work here at 1pm lunch time!

  • 5. Pamela  |  17 August 2010 at 08:43

    I would almost always rather talk about breakfast than the weather! Miss you, Lina.

  • 6. Connie  |  17 August 2010 at 01:48

    I love that these cultures put such an emphasis and importance on food! Personally, I love food and could talk about it for days on end, stopping only to eat of course. =)

    As for me, I’m quite happy traveling around Asia. I’ve been here for 8 months now and I don’t have any plans for leaving any time soon!

  • 7. Steve Jackson  |  17 August 2010 at 01:22

    Seems like it’s the opposite to Vietnam.

    Their word for rice and food is the same – so they ask, have you eaten rice yet?

    However, when they eat they fill up on meat and veg before they lay into the carbs. The rice is to fill you up only if you haven’t already eaten your fill.

    It’ll be interesting to see how your local food tolerance goes. How long before you’re wanting something more international? Or have you solved that already?

    • 8. Lina Goldberg  |  17 August 2010 at 01:47

      Before I came here I ate Asian food probably 6 days a week so I’m not going through food-culture shock. But I have started to miss my other Asian favorites like Korean (and bun cha). But I am sure I will want something western soon enough, I’ve been craving feta!

      Luckily I have a kitchen now and there’s a good supermarket here. And even more luckily, I really like Khmer food.

  • 9. Winnie  |  16 August 2010 at 23:45

    Funny stuff. I have always worried that you weren’t getting enough to eat but never felt comfortable asking. I’m glad to hear you are finally somewhere that even people that you don’t know can find out the truth. Have you eaten breakfast?

  • 10. Gabe Francis  |  16 August 2010 at 14:19

    great story Lina. Here at FUDECOSUR in Costa Rica we eat breakfast together every day in our conference room. The meal consists of coffee, fresh fruit, and either rice and black beans (called gallo pinto) or simple bread with fresh milky cream. I love this mini tradition and I’m glad to hear you have a similar experience at your MFI.

  • 11. Margarita Salasyuk  |  16 August 2010 at 10:30

    and what amazing tasty food there too!!!

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