A tourist will rarely get an opportunity to peek into the office food traditions of a work culture setting. She may enter a home, visit a street vendor or dine in a local restaurant, yet miss an entirely hidden food culture that exists in the office.
As an American, I have experienced 3 office and work culture settings. Each location has unique food traditions. And I love them all.
- Bangalore, South India – While working with a software company
- Ajijic, Mexico - While managing a residential construction site
- Shillong, Meghalaya – While working with Chillibreeze and Zizira
This article is about the last location, Shillong. Come with me on a virtual tour of office food traditions.
Tradition #1: Local Ladies Who Sell Office Snacks
When we first moved to Shillong and opened our company, unannounced to me, a lady appeared in our office carrying a very large steel tea kettle and a bucket full of tea cups. She began serving tea to everyone. I had no idea where she came from but quickly learned that this was a standard office tradition. This was my first introduction to a Kong Shai or a lady who serves red tea. (The Khasi language addresses ladies as Kong, similar to our titles in English: “Mam”, “Miss” or “Madam”.) A few minutes later, another Kong appeared carrying a basket full of traditional bread and snacks. This was my first introduction to the office food traditions of Shillong.
In our region of Northeast, India breakfast is very ethnic and a Kong from a local shop will come into the offices building each morning and sell traditionally prepared food. Today, my favorite office food tradition revolves around a lovely and very polite lady known as Kong Bih. In our region of Northeast, India breakfast is prepared using various local and Indian recipes. Kong Bih will cook the food in her local shop and then come into the office building each morning and sell her breakfast of the day. She will carry a basket full of traditional food items and a bucket of utensils and plates for serving. Sometimes the food will be wrapped, cooked, and served in a banana leaf.
If you’re like me, your mornings are busy: bathing, cooking, packing school lunch and rushing to get to work. I don’t sit or have time for eating breakfast. What more could I ask for than a cup of hot red tea with a protein packed breakfast of channa (chickpea) and a whole wheat chapatti. The menu will be different each day. One day dal, another black channa, the variety is exceptional.
The Kongs return to the office in the afternoon, but this time with healthy traditional food snacks. Each day I am in awe of the food presentation. Each item is wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf. If you come to visit Zizira or Chillibreeze you will definitely experience healthy office food snacks. Did you notice the 100% natural packaging? Did you notice we use stainless steel plates and utensils? Yes – no waste… except on the days that the Kong’s come selling their bags of branded chips. In the western world, and quickly spreading in India, we are bombarded with packaging.
Tradition #2: Red Tea Served at Each Desk
There is nothing better than a hot cup of tea, and yes it is served in a china tea cup. At Chillibreeze Susan is one of the administrative team members. With over 70 people working she has the task of getting to know the tea and coffee preferences of each employee. Are we spoiled? I think so. It’s a little bit like our own “made to order Starbucks” delivered and served at your desk. With a growing company, I’m not sure how long the tradition of customized hot beverage preferences will last!
Tradition #3: You Can’t Experience Lunch Without Chillies
During lunch, we love to sit outside. At Zizira we all sit on the terrace and share our home food which is full of different varieties and cooking styles. One item that is always on the table is raw chillies. Khasi food is not traditionally spicy like the South Indian food I am familiar with. Instead, Khasi food is simple, healthy food prepared with less spice concoctions. But don’t let a Khasi fool you because they will enjoy their dal and rice with a bite of raw chili.
You can see that the lunch food is prepared at home and carried to the office in a tiffin. Lots of rice, boiled dal prepared with Northeast India’s famous turmeric. Khasi love to eat greens: boiled greens and leafy salad along with a portion of meat, pork or fish make up typical lunch menus.
We can’t sit around the table without sharing our food with others. It is an office tradition to see and taste what our colleagues have brought from home. Each family has their own way of preparing a common dish. One of my favorite things to do at lunch is taste all the unique fresh chutney preparations, something you can’t dream of buying in a grocery store.
Here’s my little cultural secret around food. As an American we often consider lunch time a talking time. Lunch meetings, and talking throughout a meal is typical. When eating with Khasi friends, there is more focus on eating with most of the conversation engaged in after the meal. This quiet ambiance may feel awkward to an American, yet I have come to respect this part of food culture. As a wife and mother who prepares many meals, I have come to realize that sitting and eating without constant talk allows us to be mindful about what we are eating. Eating in silence shows respect. It creates an attitude of gratefulness for the food that has been prepared. Try it some time. You will gain a different insight and experience of the food set before you.
Well I can’t talk about these three office food traditions without including the pervasive Kwai culture in Meghalaya. In fact Kwai has a history or tradition of being the great equalizer. Throughout the day, in any office across Shillong, you will experience friends sharing and enjoying kwai. A great way to end the day. Try not to over indulge.
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