A big part of travel is enjoying the local cuisine, but there are culinary minefields out there when it comes to table manners.
As much as you want to tuck in straight away, in some countries eating as you would at home marks you as an ignorant foreigner at best and an insulting fool at worst.
While there is no way to cover all the nuances of eating overseas, here are some of the most notable ways to avoid embarrassment.
Westerners hate slurping, or any loud eating noises really. Try eating crunchy food in a quiet public space and just wait for the death stares.
Not in Japan, they love a bit of slurpy noodle action. And it’s okay to have half of it hanging out of your mouth as you do it. It’s supposed to enhance the flavour and be evidence you are enjoying your meal. Anyone aged below 18 is going to love this rule.
It’s also okay to pick up small bowls to facilitate the eating process, but leave bigger bowls on the table. What the bowl to table ratio is, I’m not sure, but if you are eating in public, it’s a good idea to look around you for hints.
Transfer food from the big bowl to your rice bowl if in doubt.
Like every other civilised culture there is no double dipping in the sauces. Just don’t.
Chopsticks also come with their own set of rules. Don’t lick or suck on them, don’t pass food to someone else with them and when not eating leave them on the chopstick rest, not stabbed into the food, which is a serious offence in Japan as it based on rules honouring the dead.
Italians hold their pasta very dear. Do not even think about cutting it up.
Use a fork, twirl it around the side of the plate or bowl – not on a spoon if you want to be taken seriously – and then eat it. Try smaller portions if you are struggling.
It’s disheartening to watch Italians eat pasta with such aplomb while you muddle through like a school child, so maybe practise the technique before you travel, it’s a great excuse to eat more pasta.
Thankfully, Italians love dawdling over a meal, so it won’t matter if you are the last one still with food. Wave your hands around and talk in a passionate fashion like a local, it could be a good distraction.
If you are in a fancy Italian restaurant don’t ask for extra cheese, pepper or salt unless they are offered. This implies you have less than full confidence in the ability of the chef, which is a grave insult to the establishment.
You’ve sat down, you spy a spoon and a fork, all good so far, but in Thailand, things are a little bit mixed up, you only eat with the spoon.
The fork is a support act only, whose presence is merely required to push food onto the spoon, the real player in this game. The only knives will be those in the kitchen.
Slurping is a no-no in Thailand, and do not blow your nose at the table, excuse yourself to the bathroom instead.
Another rule that should be enforced in every country everywhere worldwide at all times is no talking or laughing with your mouth full. No exceptions.
The public face of eating in China is street stalls involving an energetic chopsticks to mouth routine and a fair bit of vocal accompaniment, but there are some formal rules to eating out in China if you are eating with others.
One of the most important is the seating arrangement. The host will sit in the middle of the table, not the head such as in the West and the guest of honour will sit opposite them.
If you are seated where they serve the food, I’m afraid you are at the bottom of the totem pole. Sorry, but you are close to the food.
Do not eat until the most senior person has begun to eat, or they have indicated that it is fine to start eating. Same with toasts.
When eating, it’s all about moderation.
Don’t dig in no matter how delicious it looks. Eat your fair share of the plates nearest to you and don’t reach over others for something that looks better. Don’t put too much in your mouth and keep it closed while chewing.
Seriously, this all sounds like something my mum would approve of. Maybe we are secretly Chinese.
Use the serving spoons, not your chopsticks, to access food from central serving dishes, and once again, remember the double dipping rule. Don’t do it. Good for any culture really.
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