Meal Etiquette from around the World

Dining etiquette around the world is intricate and can have regulations that are tricky to follow. While many are not mentioned in this article, it does not mean they lack importance. This read is sure to leave you hungry for more information, we encourage you to check out what the practices in countries around the world may be, especially if you plan to travel there! By Alexx J. for The Adventures of Pili


Other topics not mentioned here include what to bring to a meal you’re invited to, the style in which meals are served, when to begin eating your meal, who should sit/eat first, and what to do when the meal is over. But below is a good start with some of the common practices that countries share & tips for dining. Now let’s dig in…

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Rule of Thumb…for Hands!
When given Oshibori (hot steam towel) in Japan, use it only on your hands, not your face. When in France, Russia, or Germany, your hands should remain rested on the table and not in your lap or with elbows on the table. When dining at a table, many believe hands should be showing the entire meal, so if you’re in doubt, resting them on the table is a safe bet. In places such as India, the Middle East & some countries in Africa, it is considered unhygienic to eat with your left hand so to be safe, always use your right hand when eating with your hands. It’s common in Chile, Brazil & Germany to not use hands at all to touch food, silverware is used for everything from pizza and fried chicken to burger and fries! But some countries believe it is unnecessary to use utensils and that food SHOULD be eaten with hands. If you visit Mexico, India, Ethiopia, Morocco, or Egypt, you’ll see many people using their hands (& bread) to eat with. But just to be safe, always eat with your RIGHT hand, not the left.

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Utensils or Bread?
The silverware or means to enjoy your meals in different places may not seem like it has much importance, but every place in the world has different expectations of etiquette for this and it is important to understand. Chopstick etiquette in Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures are very crucial, here are some things to keep in mind. Crossing your chopsticks is poor form, placing them into your mouth is also frowned up, and no matter what you do, do NOT stand them vertically up in your bowl of rice (or lay them across the bowl either). It is common at funerals to offer bowls of rice to the dead with the chopsticks standing vertically, definitely not the message you want to send to your meal hosts! If you need to set them down, lay them on a chopstick rest. In Thailand, chopsticks are not used, and putting a fork into your mouth is not acceptable. Use your fork to push food into your spoon, and then into your mouth. When using utensils, which hands should you hold them in? In Russia and France, it’s proper to keep your utensils in your hands the whole meal without switching; a fork in your left, a knife in your right is known as Continental Style and it’s common in many places. If you’re not using your knife in France, you can replace it with bread which should be eaten with the meal, not before. In many countries, bread is used as your utensil in addition to your hands! Meals shared in India and Ethiopia are enjoyed with various types of bread, such as Naan, Paratha, or Injera; grab these with your (right) hand and use them to scoop your food instead of utensils.

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Dining Tips & Shared Meals
When eating sushi in Japan, the wasabi goes onto your fish and the soy sauce on your rice rather than combining them in your soy sauce dish. In Italy, it is uncommon to mix ingredients from various regions and some things Italians can all agree upon: don’t ask for Parmesan on your pizza (unless offered), don’t mix seafood with milk, or cheese and don’t order a cappuccino after dinner. The milk prevents proper digestion and is a clear mark of an inexperienced tourist. In Portugal, if there’s no salt or pepper on the table, don’t ask for it as that can be an insult to the chef or host by questioning their seasoning skills. In certain places, such as Morocco, Greece, or Russia, it is an insult to refuse the offering of seconds, so always say yes, even if it’s just a small portion. Proper etiquette internationally agrees that reaching across the table for something is rude so always ask if you want a plate to be passed to you. To finish the plate or not to finish the plate, that is the question. Chinese and Egyptian culture expects that you will leave some food on your plate because it shows the host that they provided more than enough food to you. In many places, leaving a bite of food also signifies that you are done eating and do not want any more. But to Indian, German, Korean, some Middle Eastern & African cultures, it’s the complete opposite, and not finishing your plate is an insult and waste of food. Just make sure in Thailand, you don’t take the last bite from the sharing bowl and in China or Japan, you use the blunt end of your chopsticks to grab food from a shared plate.

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Drink etiquette can be as crucial as food rules. If Russians offer you vodka, you must accept because it’s a gesture of friendship and if you decline, you’re denying their offer to be friends. (Also, do not mix anything with the vodka as this is seen to be impure). Generally speaking, it is rude to decline beverages in many places, so whether you drink alcohol, coffee, tea, or not, you should learn to make an exception for these exceptional meals where you are the guest. In Ethiopia, if you’re offered coffee post-dinner, say yes! Tea after dinner in Egypt? Yup! Toasting a beer in Hungary?? No! This is considered historically rude, but other beverages are okay to toast. In the UK, buying a round of drinks for your party is a nice and common gesture. During your meal, if you want a refill of your drink, it can be unacceptable to do it yourself, especially if it requires standing from the table. In Egyptian and Korean cultures, always refill your neighbor’s glass and the same will be done for you.

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Conversation & Compliments
Japanese use slurping and audible noise to compliment the chef whereas the Chinese belch after meals to let the host/chef know it was satisfying; but in the UK, slurping is not appreciated. Italians and Bulgarians spend hours enjoying meals and conversation, don’t rush through courses or expect it to be a quick affair. Also, don’t dig in until “Buen Appetite” is said in Italy and “Buen Provecho” in Mexico. Many cultures find it appropriate to mention your excitement or anticipation for the meal and complimenting the host and chef after you’ve finished.

Arrival & Attire
It is widely appreciated that dining guests keep a clean appearance, attire is more than casual and you remove your shoes when you enter the home (obviously there are certain exceptions). There are many variations of when you should arrive at an invited meal, whether it’s early, on time, or fashionably late. It is so vast, yet specific, from place to place, we recommend researching the place you plan to visit beforehand so you do not make the mistake of showing up too early, or too late!

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Keeping Tabs on the Tab
Tipping in the majority of countries is considered a nice gesture and paying for the bill depends on who invited the party to a meal, but in some places, this can be the opposite. In France, whoever invites is who pays and the favor is returned the next time when sharing a meal with friends. In the Netherlands and surrounding countries, “going Dutch” is common and just means the party splits the tab. Tipping is very common in most places and the amount differs but in Japan, Belgium, and South Korea, it can be seen as an insult and may be refused.
You made it! Do you feel confused? Intimidated? Overwhelmed? It may seem like there’s a lot to know but remember, you’re unlikely going to visit every place all at once! Take it country by country – if you plan to visit a place, take time to learn their specific practices and expectations before you go. How are meals enjoyed in your home? Your city? Have you ever traveled to a place and had to practice these skills? Are there any you’d like to learn more about? Share your thoughts with your family and maybe plan a meal together where you practice etiquette from another country!

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By: Alexx J. for The Adventures of Pili. This is the latest post in the Pili´s Explorers Cookbook conceived by  Kike Calvo and the team of The Adventures of Pili, which profiles interesting information, research, and thoughts on nutrition and food around the world for families and kids. Click here to read the previous article.

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