The internet is lousy with articles trying to teach us would-be travelers some dining etiquette for various countries, much of the advice ridiculous, and some that would probably embarrass you.  I constantly see advice to burp in China, slurp in Japan, and never arrive on time in Spain, along with other counter-intuitive acts that will probably mortify the people around you.  This is really bad advice.

Researching the culture of the place you’re visiting is grand, but I suspect few of those articles come from first-hand experience.  Google “dining etiquette around the world” and you’ll come up with dozens of pieces that have all seemed to copy each other.  When someone gets the idea to cobble a new etiquette article, wham goes the Google, with the writer just aping what was written before.  The advice bits are probably rarely based on nothing, but the nuances of politeness are sometimes dangerously specific.

 

My favorite irritant advice is about body noises.  So many articles advise one to burp after a meal in China to show appreciation to the chef or host, along with telling you to slurp your noodles loudly in Japan, again to show appreciation.

Don’t do this.  In general, keep body noises to a minimum.  There may be a way to burp oh so politely in Chinese society, employing masterful timing to make it a culmination of culinary distinction, but you don’t know how to do it, and if you do it wrong, you will have no face to show to the world.  I can’t speak for Japan, but I can say that the Chinese seem more accepting in general of basic body functions, yet still that doesn’t give you corporal carte blanche.  Just assume the chef is not standing at the kitchen door watching you, fishing for compliments.

 

Dining Etiquette

Ramen in Japan.  I’ve heard slurping in Japan, but not much, and not, “the louder the better”

 

Another article advises diners in China to make a mess of the table, as that shows, yes again, appreciation.  Go now, throw food around the table to make a mess and see how Chinese beam at you, for knowing just what to do.

Any traveler to India is warned in the strongest terms not to use their left hand for certain things, especially eating.  Yet I’ve read many reports of people doing just that, without any objections being raised.  The basic rule is use only one hand for eating, using the other hand for serving (yourself or others).  Don’t mix the hands.  If you’re eating with your fingers (using no utensils), it’s already a no-brainer, as one hand is covered with food anyway, the other hand kept clean.

Ask Indians, as I’ve done, and most will say, yes you should use your right hand.  Yet it’s hard to imagine them pointing fingers at tourists eating with their left hand, decrying the person as unclean.  Yes, the left hand was traditionally thought as unclean, used only for ablutions.  If you’re growing up in India, there’s probably pressure to be right-handed, just as there has been probably everywhere (and I say this as a leftie).

Any awkwardness would come from interaction, the same way that anyone sticking out their left hand for a handshake would cause confusion.

 

Speaking of hands, I’ve seen several articles saying it’s rude to eat tacos in Mexico with a knife and fork, instead of your hands.  Have any of you ever been tempted to eat a taco with utensils?

One of the funniest pieces of travel advice I’ve ever read was in a Lonely Planet guide, reminding you that if you’re eating with your hands, Indian-style, to wash your hands before and after the meal.  If you can’t remember to wash your hands after they’re covered in food, you shouldn’t be leaving your house, much less traveling internationally.

 

Dining Etiquette

Indian food is messy, but still one of the great cuisines of the world

 

In India, you’re not supposed to leave any food unfinished on your plate, because it’s rude.  India has been poor you see, so it’s disrespectful.  In China, by contrast, you are supposed to leave some food on your plate, as it indicates you’ve been fed you so well that you don’t need any more.  Logically, that means China has never been so poor that wasting food is bad, and India has never fed people well enough that they’re overfull.

If you are criticized in either country, I suggest you point out to your Chinese friends that you finished your plate because there are people starving in India.  Likewise, inform your Indian hosts that they served you so much damn food that you’re busting.

This article tells us to keep both hands on the table while dining in France because (this is from them, not me), who knows what you are doing with your hands down there in your lap?  Ooh la la, the French.  Next time I’m dining in Paris, I’ll be noting people’s hand positions carefully, and when they creep down, noting the changing expression on their face.

The same article tells us never to cut cooked potatoes with a knife in Germany.  Just use a fork, as using a knife insults the chef by suggesting they are not cooked properly.  Because again the chef is standing right outside the kitchen door, focusing on you like a laser for any perceived insults.

 

Let’s move to using chopsticks, for which the rules flow like tea.  According to the web site Etiquette Scholar, “Everywhere in Asia you will be expected to eat with chopsticks.”  I suppose that includes Bangladesh and Tajikistan.  A web site with a name like that should know better.

Every etiquette guide will tell you not to stick your sticks straight up in the rice bowl, like this: Dining Etiquette

Also, don’t pass food to someone else by chopsticks, passing a food item from your pair to their pair.  Don’t leave your chopsticks crossed on the plate.  Don’t use the sticks to point to someone.

All these dictums are indeed a faux pas.  But how often would you do any of them anyway?  Do you stick chopsticks straight up in a rice bowl, or do you just put them down on a plate like you do your fork?  If you cross your chopsticks, how many Japanese would even notice and how many presents must you buy them afterwards to return to their good graces?

One oft-repeated chopsticks rule I’ll dispute: Many guides to eating sushi tell you to that after you snap apart the disposable wooden chopsticks, never rub them against each other to smooth the ends.  That’s an insult to the restaurant, you signaling that they use cheap chopsticks.

For this, I have a message for the restaurant: Disposable chopsticks are indeed cheap; that’s why they’re disposable.  If the restaurant is a high enough quality, they’ll spring for real chopsticks, the same way that real Western restaurants don’t give you plastic forks.  Wooden chopsticks are often crap, and since you’re putting those things in your mouth, which is, let’s remember, a bit sensitive, you want the wood to be as smooth as possible, so go ahead and do what you have to do.  I sometimes stick them, tips down, into my hot tea for a few seconds to soften them up before I rub them.

 

dining etiquette

You want to stick these straight out of the wrapper into your mouth?

 

Sushi is one type of food that inspires many articles, mostly saying “You’re doing it wrong”.  Some common dictums I support, such as don’t dip the pieces too much into the soy sauce (overpowers the taste), don’t eat the pickled ginger together with the sushi (eat it between bites), and that it’s fine to eat with your fingers.  Some I don’t, such as the people who say you shouldn’t drink sake with sushi, because that’s eating rice and drinking rice together, which for some reason offends them.  By that standard, you shouldn’t drink beer when you’re eating bread, as that’s wheat with wheat.

Don’t try to tell me that only low-quality sake is drunk warm, to suppress the flavor.  Chilling a liquid suppresses the flavor, not warming it.  That’s why we drink Budweiser ice-cold and we let Guinness be warmer.

The most common “you’re doing it wrong” with sushi is that you shouldn’t mix the wasabi into the soy sauce tray.  This command comes from the same people who tell you don’t use the extra wasabi that comes with your meal at all, at risk of insulting the chef, because of course your food is already perfectly spiced and the extra stuff wasabi is just for show.

Lots of people like to mix the wasabi into their soy sauce dish, making a light paste.  This makes it easier to get the normally-thick wasabi (which is probably dyed horseradish, not real wasabi) onto your fish.  I’ve seen Japanese people do this all the time, and it clearly is a very effective way to distribute the wasabi, so please, unless we’re ruining the fish by using too much, what is the problem?

 

Dining Etiquette

Gonna use that hunk of wasabi on the side?  Sure?

In a perfect sushi bar, the chef will season the fish perfectly, so that you need do nothing but eat it.  If you find that place, stick with it.  For all others, the seasoning is up to you.  On a similar note, I’ve read often that in Portugal (and I’ve only read this about Portugal), you shouldn’t ask for salt or pepper, as you’re insulting the chef’s ability to season the food correctly.  I guess across the border in Spain, the chefs are a bit more laid-back about this, or perhaps they lack the Portuguese savoir faire at seasoning.

Your doctor has informed me that you already eat too much salt, so stay away from that.  Restaurant food is highly salted anyway.  But pepper is magic stuff, and I like it, and I want to put more on my salad por favor, senhor.

If you’re eating bread with your meal in France, and of course you are, this site will tell you to not to put it on your plate.  “When not in use, the bread belongs on the table or tablecloth instead of the plate.”  How stupid.  Based on what I know about modern dishwashers versus a damp towel wipe, I’m going to assume the plate is a whole lot cleaner than the table surface.

Many other rules exist in the Western world about how to eat your bread.  How you should not just bite into it, tearing it instead, perhaps into quarters, and when to use the butter.  As a card-carrying authentic Western person, I can assure you we don’t worry about this much.

 

Let’s order some wine, because there are no rules here.  The wine comes.  The sommelier (more likely, the waiter) carefully opens the bottle, prying out the cork and laying it down on the table for you.  Many experts will tell you not to check the cork.  Ignore it, they say, you can’t tell much from the cork and everything you need to know comes from the wine’s taste anyway.

If you’re paying $60 for a bottle of wine, you should be able to chew the cork, as far as anyone is concerned.  True, the wine should be able to tell you everything, but wine doesn’t reveal all in the first sip, and your palate and mine aren’t as developed as Robert Parker’s.  A dry, broken, moldy, musty, or crystalized cork is your first clue to the wine, so at minimum pick it up and give it a glance.  And yes, I smell it briefly, after squeezing the business end of it, to make sure I don’t get a scent that’s off.

Finally, many do-gooders will tell you not to worry about the red wine with meat, white wine with fish type of rules, just order what you want.  I well comprehend their plan to liberate you from the would-be stifling diktats of wine, but some guidelines have a basis.  There’s a reason why a Tuscany-style Porterhouse steak needs a red wine and why Dover sole needs a white: they simply match better.

Where you can vary is stop thinking just red and white; think strong or subtle flavors.  Grilled, garlicy tuna steaks would overpower a Chablis; perhaps go for a Pinot Noir.  Boudin blanc might not stand up to a Chateauneuf du Pape; but might be good with a Riesling.   I agree with the “drink what you like” crowd, but don’t have your food overpower your wine, or vice-versa.

 

Dining Etiquette

You think this fish would go well with a red Bordeaux?

 

Let’s review:  There’s a difference between etiquette and common eating practices.  Etiquette articles will tell you you’re being rude if you do/don’t do something, when probably you’re just merely doing something a bit different from the common practice.  That’s not necessarily rude.

Most anytime I see a dining rule that says I must do something to show appreciation to the chef, or not do something because it’s insulting the chef, I cry foul.  I respect all restaurant workers like crazy, but still, they work for me.  I treat them well, I treat them like people, and I tip generously, and they in turn do not exist to make me uncomfortable.  I do not frequent an eating establishment to worry about the mood of the chef.

Another time to cry foul is the food rules supposedly based on aiding or hindering digestion.  Italians, you’ll read, don’t drink cappuccino after lunchtime because the milk hinders digestion.  Sure.  Japanese don’t drink the miso soup at the beginning of a meal because that hinders digestion.  The Chinese eat soup at meal’s end because it aids digestion.  The French eat cheese at meal’s end because that closes the stomach.  I guess the rest of the world just lives with bad digestion.

These prescriptionists imagine they are protecting the integrity of the dish, or perhaps the restaurant, or the feelings of the chef, forgetting that it’s the diner who matters.  They also ignore that the natives are mostly breaking the same rules.

Oscar Wilde once said, “A gentlemen is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally,” a loaded phrase.  If I’m going to insult a chef or a culture, it’s going to be on purpose.  They will know it.  People, including chefs, can tell when you’re deliberately being rude and when you’re not.  As long as you’re not trying to give offense, a small faux pas in the dining game will be overlooked.  And if it’s not, don’t eat with those wankers.

 

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13 Comments
  1. This article is bang on! I feel as travelers or even tourists, there should never something as ‘must do’ when visiting a different country especially when it comes to food. Also we need to realize that common practices and etiquette are different.

  2. Thank you SO much for writing this. I’ve also read several articles suggesting you burp or slurp loudly your noodles, but I’d be horrified, to be honest. Just like you, I think we need more common sense, especially when we’re traveling!

  3. Bee

    Great post! It’s very honest and i think it’s good to practise good etiquette anywhere. I think it’s sometimes to just use common respect and decency. Thanks for the tips!

  4. Great post !! I couldn’t agree more about people telling you what wine goes best with what foods. I’m a sauvignon blanc kinda girl and always will be ?

  5. If I have a question about eating etiquette, I would ask one of the locals or the waiter. I also observe what others are doing around me. I believe this is more reliable than a generic article about some countries culture. I had a meal in both Little Tokyo in LA and Japantown in San Francisco. In both places, I attempted to eat my whole meal with chopsticks despite my lack of experience with them. No one else was asking for silverware, so neither did I. Although if I hadn’t been up to the challenge, I would have asked for a fork. I don’t think anyone would have cared.

  6. I have seen, rather heard, the slurping so loud here in South East Asia. I guess the more they slurp, the happier the host gets. Oh, that chunk of wasabi in the picture looks so inviting. I have started adding it to the soy sauce dish and mixing it too. Cheers!!

  7. Reading this food was so much fun. I have read a lot of articles on dos and don’ts while eating in different countries and have always wondered if the people there would be so jobless to bother about how someone eats. like you said, as long as we don’t intentionally hurt anyone, I m sure no one bothers about how a tourist eats in their country.

  8. To be honest, I’ve never looked up dining etiquette before visiting a country! But some of the “advice” mentioned seems kind of absurd!! Interesting read

  9. Some of it seemed familiar specially having lived in Japan. I am used to hearing slurps during food but hearing people slurp on noodles and then learning to do it was an experience. Specially liked the way you have ended the post on chefs.

  10. I love this post it really made me laugh and it’s so interesting to point out odd cultural practices that make no sense for a new traveller to participate in. But man that advice about washing your hands?! What were Lonely Planet thinking?!

    • Tom

      I know–I laughed hard after seeing that Lonely Planet advice. LP has a history of talking down to its readers, so maybe its mothering instinct was just too strong that day. It will remind me to brush my teeth next.

  11. Awesome awesome awesome post! I’m just laughing so hard! Being an Indian, I’ve gone for a lunch with many foreigners in India and they do eat with spoon or fork or hand as they wish and no one gives a damn, leave alone considering it disrespectful! I mean, if a foreigner in India, eats Indian food with hand, without spilling, its rather seen in complete surprise, coz its just damn difficult!!!

  12. Woo!! Loved it. Everything makes so much sense here. Slurping and burping might be part of table etiquettes of some countries but they won’t be comfortable for me. Being an indian I dnt know how to eat with hands. You are right use common sense and don’t hurt anyone.

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