Some would argue that food is the quintessence of culture, so a great starting point for any curious traveller wanting to learn about a given culture would be to explore its cuisine. Many cultures take their food very seriously—good food is something to be proud of, preserved in tradition, and even be ceremonious about. The way a culture treats its food speaks to that culture’s values, in some ways.
Mind your table manners
And so, proper dining etiquette is essential knowledge for travellers visiting foreign places, because oftentimes, committing a food faux pas has just as much weight as committing a cultural one!
Of course, food or dining faux pas go beyond texting at the table, being too fussy with your order (unless you have dietary or medical restrictions, of course), or snapping your fingers at a server to get their attention. There are unwritten rules determined by cultural nuances, in traditions or customs, that require a bit more acuity or sensitivity on the part of the traveller. This means what might work in your home country will not always work in others. Etiquette is a tricky thing; human behaviour and habits can fall anywhere on the rude-polite spectrum, depending on where you are—it’s not all universal!
Lost in ‘crunchslation’
Many behaviours fall into a grey area, such as emitting noises while eating. Chewing loudly with your mouth open or talking with your mouth full is widely considered rude, even offensive to the senses, except in China. And in Japan, it’s actually considered polite to slurp noodles in soup (think of a bowl of ramen or soba) as it conveys appreciation for the dish, while allowing air to flow in and not burn your mouth. Doing that to your plate of spaghetti in Western countries, however, will earn you several annoyed glances and horrified expressions.
Another double-edged sword for “proper” table manners is eating with your hands—provided it’s the right hand and not the left, in some countries. While the use of utensils is the norm for many people, it’s customary to eat with your hands in many countries like India, Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, the Middle East, and even in the Philippines and Japan respectively, when eating kamayan or sushi. Of course, you should always wash your hands, especially in communal plate settings. Even utensils are attached to certain protocol. Although that evasive piece of dumpling might be shutting down your every attempt to pick it up, refrain from stabbing it like a fork!
Whether you’re dining out at a restaurant, café or street stall, or you’ve been invited into someone’s home for a meal, try not to offend the cook. Often, leaving an empty plate at the table can mean that you truly enjoyed the food—but sometimes, it could mean that the host didn’t prepare enough food for the guests and that you’re still hungry. Conversely, leaving a little bit of uneaten food behind could mean that you’re too full to continue—or it could mean that you didn’t enjoy the food all that much. When in doubt, just complement the cook!
Food faux pas from around the world
Here are just a few do’s and don’ts concerning food etiquette. What are your favourite ones? Share them in the comments below.
Travelling, for all the freedom it affords us, can make you feel a tad bit restrained at times, if you’re the conscientious type of traveller who always tries to be mindful of any cultural faux pas you could be making. But no matter what your stance is on food and eating, and no matter where in the world you are, don’t forget to enjoy the meal, period!