How to Navigate Cross-Cultural Food Etiquette

I’ve been going to dim sum on Sundays with family since I can remember. It’s sea of commotion – waiters ripping off plastic tablecloths in one fell swoop, the clanging of plates and chopsticks, and trolleys crisscrossing tables as diners cock their heads up to inspect the stacked bamboo steamers displaying everything from bean curd rolls, har gow and cha sui baos.

With dim sum, comes tea. And if you’ve ever been in an authentic dim sum spot, where Chinese patrons amass, you’ll soon notice that every time tea is poured into one’s cup, it’s accompanied by a few taps of the diner’s hand to the table – sometimes two fingers or three fingers, sometimes with the fingertips or the fist.

It’s a bewildering gesture for the keen spectator. Why do they do this? Turns out the custom started with Chinese Emperor Qianlong.

Legend says that Qianlong was a curious character, and that he often went about the streets of China in disguise in order to understand how everyday people lived. In a one-off case, Emperor Qianlong went to a restaurant with his servant and began pouring the servant tea during their meal. The servant, unused to being attended to by the Emperor in this way, had to show his respect without breaking the Emperor’s cover. So he tapped his fingers on the table to show his gratitude. Now the signal is widely practiced and considered a “thank you” at any Chinese restaurant.

Across the globe, there are a number food-centric customs that most people haven’t heard of. Eating amongst locals can be one of the most enriching travel experiences, but knowledge is key. God forbid you stick your chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice in China, as those around you recoil in horror. (Vertically standing chopsticks invokes death, resembling the burning of incense for the dead.)

Luckily, you’ll be well prepared. Here, we have the 411 on cross-cultural food etiquette.

On the subject of chopsticks: In Japan, don’t rub them together.

North Americans have gotten fairly used to rubbing chopsticks together to avoid the splinter-inducing effects from those wooden disposables we so often see at take-out sushi joints. This is a no-no in Japan; doing so indicates to restaurant owners that you think their chopsticks are cheap.

The spoon triumphs over forks in Thailand.

After a trip to Europe in 1897, Thailand’s King Chulalongkorn introduced utensils to the country. Even still, the spoon reigns supreme. Watch closely and you’ll see locals using the fork only to transfer food onto their spoon. Why? It’s crude to stuff your mouth using a fork.

Respect the elders in South Korea.

Close family ties are central to Korean culture. Elders are regarded as the heads of family, and this is reflected in the way they eat. If an elder offers you a drink, accept it with both hands. Similarly, don’t start tucking away at your meal until the eldest male begins to eat, and don’t think about leaving the table until he does either.

Never ‘flip the fish’ in Poland.

Playing with the food on your plate is never a good idea but even more so in Poland while you’re having a fish course. When it’s served to you, never flip it over on your plate. There’s an old superstition that the boat of the fishermen who caught what you’re eating, will capsize.

Watch your penchant for Parmesan in Italy.  

There are a few rules about Parmesan in Italy: cheese and seafood don’t mix and no, there will be no extra ‘Parm’ for that pizza you’ve just ordered. Now that you know, hold yourself back from asking for it once your scallop risotto and pizza Margherita hit the table.

Always say ‘yes’ to unadulterated vodka in Russia.

Eating in Russia is synonymous to drinking vodka. It’s considered a cardinal sin to reject vodka from someone who offers it during a meal. (When someone offers you vodka, it’s an act of friendship, and therefore deemed as rude to say ‘no.’) Don’t think about adding ice or mixer to it either, or you’ll have the Russians shaking their heads.

If you’re in the Middle East, India or certain parts of Africa do not eat with your left hand.

In these countries, where you’ll probably have a traditional meal with your bare hands, it’s considered taboo to pick up food with your left hand. The left hand and the right hand are used for characteristically different things; right hand to eat, left hand to clean.

How to Navigate Cross-Cultural Food Etiquette
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