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Dining Etiquette: Asia vs. Europe

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.