The art of eating alone

Solo diners enjoy their noodles in peace at Japanese ramen shops — Pictures by CK Lim
Solo diners enjoy their noodles in peace at Japanese ramen shops — Pictures by CK Lim

COMMENTARY, Aug 21 — My friend Alvin calls me to see if I’m free for dinner. I’m not, not tonight. Another day perhaps.

No biggie, right?

Except Alvin needs someone to join him for dinner. For every meal, really, with the exception of breakfast (which he skips).

Me: Surely you can have dinner alone?

Alvin: Yes, but...

Me: But...?

Alvin: It’ll be so boring.

Would it though?

I love dining with friends, old and new. Be it intelligent, mature topics or an excuse for a gabfest, what’s not to like?

Yet there is nothing wrong with dining alone either, something we might have to entertain more and more in this age of social distancing.

There is nothing wrong and plenty that is fine and right, if I may.

Enjoy a plate of 'char toong fun' (fried glass noodles) quickly before it gets cold
Enjoy a plate of 'char toong fun' (fried glass noodles) quickly before it gets cold

As with life, it’s different strokes for different folks.

However, I venture there is an appropriate occasion for every soul, even the more haplessly sociable among us, to dine sans company.

Of course, very often when we’re dining alone outside we’re never entirely alone. The restaurant or café would have other patrons. We’d be, after a fashion, dining alone together with others.

And sometimes, just by chance, every other table is occupied by a single customer. Everyone else is alone too, in their own world and sharing the same space as us. It’s a quiet sort of companionship, a camaraderie of content souls.

As author MFK Fisher puts it: “An occasional meal with himself is very good for Mr Doe. It gives him time to look about him; quiet in which to savour his present mouthful; opportunity to broil his steak a new way or try again those dishes his wife hates.”

Time. Quiet. Opportunity. And what my father always advised me about food: “Try it again. If you don’t like it the second time, I won’t make you eat it again.”

Having a meal alone is an opportunity to catch up with... yourself
Having a meal alone is an opportunity to catch up with... yourself

Put in perspective, doesn’t dining alone sound absolutely brilliant?

Some will still beg to differ (they always will). The inability to eat alone isn’t necessarily the result of preferring the company of others — the garrulous nature of humans, the colour and cacophony of conversation — but perhaps our unease with the company of one: ourselves.

Some foods are best enjoyed in solitude: the noisy slurping and focus required by a demanding bowl of artisanal ramen; some sticky — very sticky — fried chicken calling for every single one of our fingers to licked carefully and thoroughly so as not to waste a single glob of glaze.

You’ve all been there; you understand, surely?

My Japanese friends describe the joys of cubicles in ramen shops for solitary diners to enjoy their noodles in peace, not having to worry about how they look or to wipe at their chins, smeared with blobs of fat-rich broth, every minute.

We are less abashed here in Malaysia; I would gladly dig into my plate of char toong fun (fried glass noodles) without worrying about the stray strand adorning my cheek. There will be time to clean up afterwards: the present moment calls for my undivided attention before the wok hei dissipates, forever.

The best stalls have a wide variety of 'lauk-pauk' to choose from
The best stalls have a wide variety of 'lauk-pauk' to choose from

Who cares about the stares from other customers in the kopitiam? Dining alone in public can be a useful exercise in thickening one’s skin or simply learning that, no, no one is really judging your appearance and actions, criticising and condemning you; they’re too busy with their own meals, to be honest.

Of course, we don’t have to dine in public, especially if social distancing is going to be an issue. There’s a particular pleasure in dropping by your favourite stalls to dabao, to get food for takeaway.

For me, dining alone doesn’t have to mean being anti-social. In fact, my very favourite ritual for eating alone begins with a conversation, with catching up on the weather, the latest gossip. The people who make your food, who serve you at your table, they are a window to the world. (As you are theirs.)

The vendors (and the cooks, the waiters, the baristas, an army of food industry heroes) recognise you as a regular and know whether you’re ordering for one or for two. More often than not, they understand the ebb and flow of your week better than family and friends would.

I especially love economy rice shops or stalls where there is a plethora of lauk-pauk to choose from. One kakak with a sharp memory would remember I’d always want a chicken drumstick and a fried egg to go with my nasi lemak bungkus. Why would eating alone be a sad affair when there is so much joy even before we get home and unwrap our little packet of deliciousness?

My 'nasi lemak bungkus', always with a chicken drumstick and a fried egg
My 'nasi lemak bungkus', always with a chicken drumstick and a fried egg

We don’t even have to get takeout. There’s nothing better than to curl up on the sofa with a bowl of overnight oats I’ve made myself and a good book I can hardly put down between each spoonful. What’s even more profound is when we can skip the book or our smartphone and focus on our food.

Of course, eating alone can veer into the realm of the absurd just as easily. There is a certain danger to going down a rabbit hole of YouTube or TikTok clips, for instance, when having your meal by yourself.

Before long your food is getting cold while you watch yet another Korean café vlog (is there anything more beautiful than an espresso shot sinking and blending into cold milk?) or a mukbang of someone gorging themselves on unfathomable amounts of fast food or super spicy ramyun.

Taken in small doses, mukbang can be fun to watch (maybe) but doesn’t this feel like it’s glorifying gluttony rather than some worthy achievement? Supping solo isn’t all about a hit of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR).

We can dine alone... together with other solitary customers
We can dine alone... together with other solitary customers

Having a meal alone is an opportunity to catch up with... yourself. Our inner self — and we, to borrow a phrase from the poet Walt Whitman, “contain multitudes” — is worth exploring, our thoughts and fears and dreams and ambitions excavated and considered.

We see how we live and the reflection that stares back in the mirror is dismay or delight. (Likely a bit of both.) What we sup on is clarity, just a smidgen closer to understanding ourselves and our needs and how we can best contribute.

Now isn’t that a fine reason to dine alone, if only once in a while? Have no fear and feast gently on who you are. We are finer people than we give ourselves credit for.

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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