Most people in the West are usually raised with some basic understanding of what is acceptable at the table and how to eat certain foods. However, when you start travelling and living abroad, you will find that a concept that you thought shows class is turned upside down. Different countries around the world have different rules of what they consider polite, acceptable and a big no-no when it comes to dining.
Let us take a general look at East Asian and European countries and their dos and don’ts when it comes to dining etiquette. If you are travelling to this part of the world and want to blend in – especially if dining with locals – think of the well-known advice: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, and it will go a long way.
Eating Etiquette in Asia
Pasta vs. Rice and Making Yourself Feel at Home in Someone Else’s Home
As a Western European living in Asia, some of the more amusing stories involve relatives unexpectedly showing up at your house, helping themselves to your fridge without asking and preparing the food in your kitchen using any ingredients they can find in your kitchen cabinets. A Western person might also not get their head around the fact that it seems all they seem to do when together as a family is eat all day. When any meal or snack is over and done with, they start cooking the next meal.
A situation many foreigners living in Asia, more specifically Philippines, will run into is that they prepare a typical dish from back home, for example spaghetti, for friends and family, and wonder why they are still hungry after already having loaded their plates several times. It is only to find out that spaghetti is considered a snack in the Philippines and not a main dish or a warm meal we would have for lunch or dinner in the West…
Basic rule: If no rice is served, it is not a proper meal. In case you are a foreigner living here and opt to serve pasta as a main course, make sure you serve it with rice! Yes, pasta and rice combined does not make sense to most people living outside the Philippines, but that is the only way you will make your friends’ and relatives’ tummies happy.
As a foreigner in this part of the world, you will also have to let go of the notion that it is not considered rude to already season your food and squeeze an unidentifiable concoction of sauces on top of your freshly prepared food before it was even tried. Yes, in Europe this would be a big no-no and a great insult to the cook as you are assuming that the food needs additional seasoning without even trying first. Not so here.
Allow your guests to feel at home in your home and let them help themselves to everything you own and allow them to rearrange your kitchen cupboards. Do not be taken aback when your guests start mixing their own sauces and overload their plates with so much rice that it is falling off the edge of the plate. It is not because you are a bad cook or that you are not serving enough food. It just so happens that they enjoy eating and it is a completely fine thing to do.
Other Dos and Don’ts in Asia
Never leave your chopsticks in the bowl or stick them upright into your food or rice as it associated with funerals and symbolizes death. Rather use the chopstick holder beside the bowl or lie them next to it. Make sure you are not pointing your chopsticks at anyone as this is considered a serious insult - especially in China.
It takes time for non-chopstick users to master the fine art of chopsticks, but I would say you can consider yourself a master when you have passed the unofficial test of eating peanuts using these utensils.
Being on Time
In many Western countries it would be considered impolite to arrive late - not so in many (not all) Asian countries. Arriving up to 30 minutes or 1 hour late is considered absolutely acceptable and polite as by doing so you are not rushing the host. Do not lose your patience but go with the flow and see it as having more time to get yourself ready and run some errands. In some Asian countries you may even find that the celebration will not start until 2-3 hours later or that the hosts themselves are not even present or the food is not yet cooked when the guests start arriving.
In the West, we are not necessarily used to serving much of our food with bones, eyes, claws and intestines. However, if we do get round to serving a whole fish, we will make sure to get every bite we can and will not hesitate to flip over a fish. Do not do this in China as this is considered bad luck. Instead, leave the fish lying as it is and try to get the fish from the top by removing the bones in the middle.
You will find in many Asian countries that you do not need to tip. The ‘tip’ or service charge will already be included in the food. As a culture (China, Korea, Japan), it is considered disrespectful to tip and you only pay the exact amount as stated on the bill. This is something that takes time getting used to, especially if you feel the service was excellent, but your wallet will thank you for it.
Burping and Slurping
In China, you will find that it is a sign of appreciation to burp at the dinner table after a meal. It shows that you enjoyed the food and were well fed. Try not to be disgusted as this is something you will need to get used to (not just at the dining table…).
You will also find that in many parts of Asia it is considered acceptable to slurp your noodles as it shows you are enjoying your food. Also holding your head right above the bowl is the fine (and probably easiest way) to eat Asian noodles considering their length. Unlike in Europe where you should bring your hand to your mouth, it is the other way round in Asia – surely not something for those that are fond of elegant dining.
Leave food on your Plate
Leaving a little food on your plate indicates that your host prepared enough food and did not leave you hungry. Not leaving anything left on your plate may cause offense to the cook and may lead you to getting another serving (especially in China).
Europe’s Dos and Don’ts
Like any European having to come to terms with certain etiquette and different dining rules in Asia, an Asian coming to Europe for the first time will be just as shocked by all the rules we have in our part of the world. Starting with all the cutlery on the table, how to hold your wine glass, the different types of courses, where to lay your napkin (for that matter even having a napkin) are just as bewildering for the newcomer. Here are some things you might have to change:
Do not eat with your mouth full
Unlike in Asia where you would find it absolutely common to converse with half your food dangling from your mouth, you cannot do this in Europe. Make sure your mouth is empty before speaking. People generally find this typically repelling and not good manners.
Do not cut your salad or eat it with your dessert
This is a big no-no. All over Asia you will find fantastic restaurants and hotels offering the most wonderful buffets, and for a European it is absolutely entertaining to observe how Asians manage to fill their plate with an appetizer, salad, main course and dessert all at once. Take your time in Europe and enjoy each individual course. Do not mix the foods and certainly do not put cakes or delicate pastries on your salad filled plate. It does not match.
Another tip to look as if you know what you are doing is instead of cutting up your salad, fold it with your fork. We do not cut salad.
Hands on the table
Some countries like the US, it is the norm to leave your hands on your lap under the table and some Asian countries have adopted this manner. You will also find that in Asia many eat with their elbows on the table and their head just slightly above the bowl. Well, Europeans are a bit particular with this one. Your hands, not your elbows, should always be on the table and you should sit straight. Otherwise you risk people wondering what you are doing with your hands under the table and if you have something to hide.
Do not drink your soup from your soup bowl! Yes, it is a normal thing to do in Asia and to slurp your soup, but in Europe we use spoons and sip from them. Another etiquette rule many are not aware of would be to tilt your soup bowl away from you and not towards you.
You will find in many restaurants that bread baskets are served as an appetizer. If you happen to be in France however, the bread basket should not be considered as a starter on its own. Rather the bread is to accompany your entrée or main course and it is common practice to rest the bread on the table and not on a plate.
Using Fork and Knife
In Asia, you will either be using chopsticks, hands, or fork and spoon. Some may think that like in the US, where you use fork and knife, it is acceptable to switch your fork to your right hand and use one hand to eat - not so in Europe. Make sure you eat your food with your fork in your left hand and your knife in the right hand. Anything else is considered bad table manners.
In many Asian countries, certain coffee chains have become a prestige thing as it shows you have enough small change to spend on a completely overpriced drink. Not just that, it seems somewhat fancy for some to drink Italian drinks like Cappuccino. What many people might not be aware of is that you simply do not drink cappuccino in the afternoon or after a warm meal. Never do this in Italy. Cappuccinos are for breakfast or at most before noon.
When travelling your stories and experiences add up and you become more aware of what is acceptable in one culture (or country even) is not acceptable in another. In any case, you are the one who needs to adjust, but when things happen for the first time, well, it does get you wondering…
There will be times where you will simply not believe your own eyes. There will be situations that will cause shock, surprise and absolute head-shaking when they suddenly come up - especially if you think you have got it all figured out only to find yourself back to square one. Do not frown upon things, do not get frustrated and judge, but learn to go with it.