Cultures express themselves in many ways. National dress may tell the tale of the nation’s founding, music is a record of folk tales and heroes, and sport gives everyone in the country something to cheer about.
But food transcends them all. The feasts that mark key milestones in life will vary by country, the rituals of religion will have their own special dishes, and favourite foodstuffs may even be national icons.It’s impossible to imagine the tartan-clad pomp of a Burns Supper without Scotland’s famed haggis, or an American Thanksgiving that lacks a turkey. And what would an Indonesian circumcision party be without a cone of Tumpeng?
The global menu is rich and varied, much like the dining etiquette that accompanies it. When accepting the generous hospitality of you host, it’s important you don’t accidentally insult them. It’s an easy thing to do in an unfamiliar culture, where the rules of polite behaviour may be quite different. This is never more apparent than at the dinner table, or around the communal serving bowl, or sat on the floor. Wherever you’re eating, make sure you know the rules to follow and don’t be surprised if your fellow diners eat with their hands, abruptly leave the meal or even try to feed you themselves.
So as you tuck into the delicacies on offer, make sure you’ve read our serving of food etiquette rules from around the world.
10. Eat with your hands – Middle East
Many cultures in the Middle East and parts of Asia treat meals as a big community event. The men of the household (women often eat separately) sit together on the floor, around a generous spread of steaming dishes and warm breads.
There’s a hierarchy to who sits where, with the prime spot given to guests who sit furthest away from the door. The host and any elders will also be arranged to show their position with younger diners waiting to tuck in last.
Everyone washes their hands in a communal basin before helping themselves to the feast. Bread is used to scoop up servings, but there’s not a fork in sight as diners eat with their hands. But only the right one.
It’s taboo to use the left hand in polite company as it’s used to clean oneself after going to the toilet. With this hand always regarded as dirty, however much it is washed, the left hand should never be used to gesture to another person or to wave in greeting. And of course, it should never be used to handle food.
Another thing to remember is the cultural significance of bread. Bread is regarded as a direct gift from God and should be treated with reverence. If bread is dropped to the floor it should be recovered, kissed, touched to the forehead and eaten.
9. Don’t leave your chopsticks stood up – Japan
Japan has many rituals and rules, from the perfection of the tea ceremony to the bowing and business card exchange of formal meetings. Things don’t relax at the dinner table either.
If staying in Japan for any length of time it’s wise to get practising with chopsticks; they will be the cutlery of choice for nearly every meal.
Chopsticks are a delicate way of handling food and require finesse. Most food in Japan is served in portions that help with the complex procedure of chopstick eating; sushi is served in bite-sized chunks. It’s considered uncouth to take a bit from a portion and return it to the bowl – ideally it should all be eaten in one go – but if needed, the morsel should be help in the chopsticks between bites.
Never be seen licking the sauce from chopsticks or rubbing them together to clean off any splinters. The first faux pas involves showing more tongue than is polite, whilst the second is an insult to the quality of the host’s cutlery.
The biggest no-no in Japanese table manners is related to funeral rituals. Never leave chopsticks stood up in a meal or pass food to each other from chopsticks to chopsticks. Both these actions symbolise that the meal is not to be eaten by the living, but by the dead.
Even after successfully avoiding etiquette embarrassment in a restaurant it’s possible to make mistakes. Never leave a tip for the waiters or chefs; it suggests that they aren’t good enough at their jobs to earn a living from it.
8. Don’t start eating until the eldest does – Korea
Korea is a little more relaxed than Japan, but still has some strict table manners. The country holds respect for its elders as very important and will expect all diners, guests included, to wait for the eldest to tuck in first.
Bowls of food may be passed around the table, again from the eldest first, so the person handing you the dumplings is probably a higher rank than you. Show your respect by accepting the bowl with both hands and a small nod. The person you pass the bowl on to will likely show you the same deference.
Soju, Korean rice wine has a similar tradition. Pouring for yourself is considered bad form, so drinking with a partner is mandatory, with each taking in turns to top each other’s glass. It’s equally rude to leave your partner’s glass empty, so it’s possible to get very drunk very quickly on the powerful tipple.
Korean food can often have a spicy kick of chilli and the famous Kimchi pickled cabbage is also on the warm side. This can cause problems with the biggest taboo of Korean cuisine: it’s never permitted to blow your nose at the table.
Anyone feeling the heat and suffering a runny nose should quickly excuse themselves from the party and blow their nose well out of sight and sound from any diners. Blowing your horn into a tissue or hanky at the table is considered the most disgusting thing anyone could do.
7. Don’t finish your meal – China
In China, it’s an insult to the host’s hospitality to clear your plate; it’s a suggestion that the host was too stingy to offer a filling portion.
Instead, leave a little food in your bowl and make sure you slurp the noodles. Show appreciation for the delicious noodles and rich sauces by loudly scoffing them down, and don’t forget to belch afterwards. A polite little burp shows that your generous host has left you full and happy.
6. Don’t touch your food – Chile
Chileans don’t touch their food; everything is eaten with a knife and fork. From the poshest of restaurants to the humblest street-side shack, nobody eats anything with their hands.
Pizza, fries, sandwiches and burgers are all eaten with the aid of cutlery. Some parts of Brazil observe this hard and fast rule, whilst in Mexico it’s very bad form to eat a taco with anything other than your hands.
5. Don’t cut your spaghetti – Italy
Italians are passionate about most things, none more so than their food. So don’t risk upsetting the chef by asking for condiments.
A sprinkling of cheese or a dash of pepper might fine-tune the meal to your personal taste, but you’re telling the chef he didn’t get it right. And don’t even think of asking for ketchup.
The same logic applies to doggy bags. Taking away the remainder of your meal might be a perfectly acceptable thing to do in North America, but it’ll drive Italian chefs apoplectic. They skilfully prepared your meal to be eaten hot in wonderful surroundings with fine wine, why would you disgrace that by microwaving it and eating it in your pyjamas?
The biggest slap in the face you could give the chef is to cut your spaghetti. Only children are allowed to cut spaghetti, adults should separate a few strands of the stringy pasta and twirl the fork to gather into a tight ball. Again, only children should use a fork and it’s bad form to suck up trailing strands, flicking sauce at dinner companions.
4. Down your drink – Georgia
It’s traditional in many cultures to offer a toast of thanks before the meal begins, but in Georgia this has become a complex and boozy ritual.
Supra is a ritual of everyone at table offering a toast in turn. Then the whole process is repeated a second time. This sound perfectly manageable until you realise that Supra requires everyone to down their drinks. Admitedly these are only small glasses, but they are filled with vodka.
It’s not unusual to knock back 15 glasses on a typical evening before settling in to eat, meaning Georgian meals can be very chatty.
It’s never a good idea to toast with a beer in you hand, this is only done when you wish bad luck on someone.
3. Thank Pachamama – Bolivia
Bolivia is a Catholic country with retains many of its ancient beliefs; chief among them is reference of the Earth Mother Pachamama.
When starting an new drink many Bolivians will spill a small drop onto the floor and say “para la Pachamama”. This small gesture is a ritual offering of thanks to the earth, which is said to pay these gestures in kind. Diners in Bolivia should avoid pouring their own drinks as waiters are expected to do this.
To open an evening of revelry, the host will stand and shout “Provecho!”, with guests replying “Gracias!”
2. Don’t ‘go Dutch’ – France
French cuisine is world famous for its delicate flavours and exquisite preparation. But the main point of dining out for the French is to get together with friends and chat.
The socialising element of the meal can last hours longer than the eating, with wine and conversation flowing freely late into the night. So to suggest splitting the bill is quite an insult.
Why would you suggest that? Did you not enjoy our company? Do you not like us? Your fellow diners will be most upset, as splitting the bill means you don’t ever want to eat with them again.
In France, the person who extends the invite pays, and the guests must return the favour. An on-going exchange of hospitality is what forms friendships and cements business deals.
By offering to split the bill, you are failing to return the hospitality and effectively severing the budding friendship for good.
1. Eat your mouse head first – Zambia
Mice are an important delicacy to the Tumbuka people of northern Zambia. Dried mice, or mbewe, might be served as an appetiser before a big meal or alongside nshima, a boiled cornmeal porridge.
Mice take on a symbolic significance, wives are judged by their ability to ration the home’s quota of edible rodents and couples yearn for baby boys to the father can pass on his mouse hunting expertise.
Mbewe also helps define the gender roles in Tumbuka society, men are responsible for hunting the mice and are expected to stay well clear of the womenfolk’s preparation and serving duties. Men who dwell too long by a bubbling pot or count the meat portions in a meal are teased.
The mouse dish is often served to guests of honour, so visitors can look forward to this furry feast. Mbewe is made from one of fourteen mouse species native to Zambia; the rodents are caught, killed and gutted before preparation.
After boiling the little beasts for an hour, they are salted and dried over a fire until bone dry. It’s taboo to prepare mice in any other way and the eating of them is just as proscribed.
Mbewe must be eaten headfirst all the way to the base of the tail. But never eat the tail. Instead the tail should be used as a kind of dental floss, removing any residue of fur or bone from the mouth.
It might not be the most appetising of foods, but remember to observe one table manner that is universal: don’t refuse your host’s hospitality. Bon Appetit!
Article by Andy Scofield, International Features Writer