Why we eat alone

In urban cities, from Singapore to Beijing to Shanghai, eating alone is increasingly embraced, even if it seems to go against human instinct or some food cultures of communal dining. The pandemic has changed some nuances, but the essence of having a cuppa with yourself, nourishing mind and palate, is here to stay.
Diners eat in a restaurant in Guangzhou city's Tianhe district in China's southern Guangdong province on 1 December 2022. (CNS/AFP)
Diners eat in a restaurant in Guangzhou city's Tianhe district in China's southern Guangdong province on 1 December 2022. (CNS/AFP)

These days, people often say they’ve missed gathering for a meal. True, but I think I’ve also missed the carefree days of dining out alone. 

A fond memory is of the time I went in search of unagi. One morning in Arakawa City, on a quiet street, stallholders were laying out their wares. Music floated in the air. Was it coming from a gramophone somewhere? Or perhaps the megaphone on the wall? 

Soon I turned into the next street, joining the boisterous queue to the restaurant. Once the gates opened, we filed in, taking our seats on tatami mats. Amid delicious aromas and lively chatter, we savoured melt-in-the-mouth unaju or grilled eel on rice. In that hour, people’s lives intertwined, only to separate and coalesce as individual memories.

Fortunately, solo dining is a luxury the everyman can afford, even if it may not be every man’s cup of tea.

Customers dine at Yoshitsune sushi restaurant in Urayasu, Japan, on 5 December 2022. (Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg)
Customers dine at Yoshitsune sushi restaurant in Urayasu, Japan, on 5 December 2022. (Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg)

Was the little happiness I felt then a bit like the sense of freedom flâneurs in 19th century France had as they went from place to place, partaking of the scene yet standing apart? Or perhaps it was more like the pure delight of food hunters in Japanese manga and TV shows. Think Goro Inagashira of Solitary Gourmet (《孤独的美食家》) at a sushi bar, following obasans’ lead in enjoying the happy hour deals. Or Suzuki Takamiya of Izakaya Shinkansen unfurling his cutlery set, selecting the right implement before tucking into regional specialities and sake.

Fortunately, solo dining is a luxury the everyman can afford, even if it may not be every man’s cup of tea.

Food for thought

Some surveys have shown that eating alone is not that palatable, not to mention that in some cultures, communal eating is more of the norm.

In Chinese food culture, for instance, people often eat together with san cai yi tang (三菜一汤 three dishes and one soup) on the table. Actually, aloneness in general is viewed somewhat negatively. Taiwanese art historian Chiang Hsun explains in Six Lectures on Loneliness (《孤独六讲》) that in Chinese, 孤 and 独 of the word 孤独 (loneliness) are derived from a family of characters with rather unsavoury connotations such as orphaned or abandoned, and elicit feelings of sadness and pity. 

People eat at a hawker centre in Singapore. (SPH Media)
People eating at a hawker centre in Singapore. (SPH Media)

In Western semantics, the meanings associated with the word for being alone can mean solitude, derived from the Latin “Sol”, meaning the sun, and the Greek “Sol”, meaning “only”. While solitude in the Western conception is self-empowering and confident, in the Chinese conception, influenced by Confucianism, it is seen as a lack, an imperfection. Chiang also points out that without getting to know oneself, it is hard for anyone to get along with others. 

I think what he says makes a lot of sense. That’s where dining alone comes in, giving time and space for conversations with the self.  

Lorna tells me that the older generation may find eating alone “a little pathetic” but she and her peers see it as “very normal”. 

Solo dates

In China, it’s been a while now since mindsets have been changing and solo dining has thrived. Restaurants seek to cater to such diners, sometimes even designing the whole restaurant around single dining

Lorna Wei, an academic in Beijing, and Emma Zhao, a master’s student in Shanghai, are two Chinese who often eat alone.

People are seen outside a restaurant in the Jing'an district in Shanghai, China, on 7 December 2022. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
People are seen outside a restaurant in the Jing'an district in Shanghai, China, on 7 December 2022. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

Lorna tells me that the older generation may find eating alone “a little pathetic” but she and her peers see it as “very normal”. 

She says, “Sometimes, I need to work all day and have to eat outside. On such days I would have something super “fine”, like roast duck and hot pot. They are dishes for sharing, and a little bit expensive. But I like to eat them alone and take leftovers back home. Some people may find it sad to eat hot pot alone, but I don’t think so. Being alone is quite a reward, and sometimes I don’t even understand why people feel lonely.”

Emma eats alone at the canteen on weekdays and orders takeout on weekends. “I eat slowly and often like to have a change of taste,“ she says. “If I eat with others, I would be embarrassed to let others wait. And I would not like to wait for others. In addition, I may not be able to freely choose the dishes according to my taste when eating with others.”

She feels that in the post-Covid era, “the restaurant has an equal attitude towards customers, but it may prefer people who eat together, because people who eat together can spend more”.

Emma's canteen meals.
On the weekdays, Emma eats alone at the canteen. (Photo provided by Emma Zhao)

Indeed in the time of masks, revenge dining, QR code menus, and restaurants wanting to turn tables quickly, the unconscious thought not to dawdle makes dining out alone a bit less freeing than before. The charm of solo dates, the treasured unobtrusive presence, has perhaps been gradually chipped away. As with things taken for granted, you miss it when it’s gone.  

Maybe sentiments will change again, but meanwhile, there’s still the thought of finding solo dining adventures indoors.

Home bistro

Having recently moved to a new abode, I’m on a mission to try and eat well while eating alone. It’s still a work in progress, full of false starts and wish lists. I haven’t quite christened the oven. I say it’s because I’m waiting for Mum and jie to do our first cook with the oven together, but maybe I’m just a little afraid of the fire. I’ve had better luck with the steamer, but I do dream of baking scallion scones and butter cake and roasting a whole chicken. Oh and as a family project, recreating the braised chicken wings we used to have at Popo’s house. One day. 

But I’m probably not alone in trying to master the art of eating well when eating alone. Based on 2020 figures, in Singapore, around 16% of households are one-person households; in China, the figure is around 25%. Maybe we’re living similar lives.  

Says Lorna, who lives alone and often orders food delivery: “It’s very difficult for me to cook. I’m scared of fire and gas. So, I don’t use kitchenware as most Chinese do. I only use a small electric pot to heat or cook instant food, like noodles, Pho, or some prepared food (预制菜). Another reason I don’t cook often is that there would be so much oily smoke when cooking. That’s not healthy.”

People buy food from a cai fan stall in Singapore. (SPH Media)
People buying food from a cai fan stall in Singapore. (SPH Media)

I’m resolving to do better on my delivery bill myself. While it’s convenient and options are plentiful, it’s not quite healthy for the waist and budget. Good thing there’s also the option of cai fan (rice with dishes) to rely on.

Emma thinks as one-person households increase, people may be mindful to choose low-fat meals, or go for nutritious Shaxian snacks or store-cooked meals in Lawson Store. And in mainland China, something similar to cai fan is available at canteens for the elderly. She says, “When I first moved to Shanghai, I asked local people if there was a restaurant they’d recommend. Everyone said the nearby elderly canteen. I like it very much because I won't order too much food or waste food. It's cost-effective.”

Every cough and sneeze flows through the walls, not to mention the “bing blang” of crockery and wafts of deep frying or stir-fries. 

A few dining companions

While the home bistro menu is a work in progress, it’s still a simple joy to tarry awhile, gazing out but also gazing inward. And there’ve been no lack of dining companions.

First, the ants racing up and down the “F1 circuit” long table. I’d be tucking into wanton mee and see them camouflaging their way across the speckled terrain. Or sometimes they might be dining solo themselves, and give you a little bite in the crook of your arm to say hi. By reflex action, the thumb goes down and they’re out. And more than once, a whole bird entered via a window sill. Once, a bewildered bird made a groggy exit as it bumped into the window pane on its way out. Then the lizards. Most times I hear them, but the few times I’ve seen them have been a harrowing encounter, even a bit of a duel. Let’s just say Baygon isn't quite the right ammunition.

But let’s not forget the humans. Not sure if walls have ears but they sure can talk. Every cough and sneeze flows through the walls, not to mention the “bing blang” of crockery and wafts of deep frying or stir-fries. In short, plenty of sounds and aromas to guess what the next table’s having — and vice versa.

Lorna's meal
Lorna can't do without dianzi zhacai when she eats on her own. (Photo provided by Lorna Wei)

I’ve heard that the Chinese can’t do without dianzi zhacai (电子榨菜, lit. digital pickled vegetables, bite-sized videos that people watch while eating) when dining alone. Curious, I asked Lorna and Emma about it. Emma says she usually watches movies with earphones in her ears. Lorna too can’t do without dianzi zhacai. “No video, no meal, “ she says. “I’ve been watching《 甄嬛传》[Empresses in the Palace] whenever I eat since 2012. It accompanies me all the time and some of my friends can’t believe that I still watch it now. With 《 甄嬛传》, eating alone becomes a daily ritual. It’s a great time for me to relax. And it also makes me feel secure when I live in foreign countries.”

For all the happy meals alone enjoyed, there is also the appreciation for all the ones shared.

Alone, and with others

Of course, for all the adventures that solo dining offers, I’m reminded of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild about Chris McCandless who ventured into the Alaskan wilderness alone and unfortunately met his demise.

Towards the end, he noted in the margins after reading a passage of Dr Zhivago: “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” Was this what he gleaned after going it alone in the wild? It is a pearl of wisdom I wouldn’t disagree with, even while pockets of alone time is a treat. For all the happy meals alone enjoyed, there is also the appreciation for all the ones shared.

As the year draws to a close, it’s a great time to count one’s blessings. While there have been thoughts of rediscovering, regaining, recreating, while writing this, I remind myself that if there has been any lesson learnt in the year, it’s not to focus on what’s lost but what we still have, not on regaining past experiences but gaining new ones.

Besides, we’re never quite alone at the dining table, are we? The ants are waiting.

Related: Chicken rice for the Singaporean soul | Taiwanese art historian: The joy of sharing food in old Taiwan | Taiwanese art historian: The five elements of cooking in the olden days | Not everything has to be run by the state: Thoughts on communal canteens in China