We’ve all been in that situation before. You’re invited out for a lovely meal, but what are the social graces you will need to expertly navigate your way through the minefield of manners and proper etiquette? In some countries making slurping noises while you eat is expected while in others it is deeply frowned upon. And what about leaving food on your plate – when is it acceptable and when should you never chance it?
Yes, the etiquette of eating out in Asia can be treacherous but Teresa Richardson, Managing Director of The Travel Corporation, has some tried and tested tips and tricks up her sleeve that will have you dining like a local.
Slurping, lip smacking and open mouths
“Slurping your noodles in Japan is a sign of respect. You’re showing your host that you’re enjoying the meal – thoroughly,” says Teresa, “and they say it has the added benefit of cooling hot food more quickly.” So go ahead, slurp away. You’ll be praising your hosts cooking skills and you won’t have to wait too long before you can tuck in to all that deliciousness.
In Cambodia slurping is also encouraged as are the two Western no-no’s: putting your elbows on the table and eating with your mouth open. But don’t ever do this in Malaysia. Your mouth should be closed when chewing and never talk when your mouth is full.
Chopping and chopsticks
“To make an unofficial table reservation when dining out in Singapore leave a packet of tissues on your chosen table,” adds Teresa. This is called ‘chopping’ and people even leave their keys and cell phones on their table while they serve their food from the buffet station.
The ultimate no-no when dining in Asia is to leave your chopsticks vertically in the middle of your bowl. In many Asian cultures this is symbolic of death and hugely disrespectful. Chopsticks should also never be placed directly on the table. Use your chopstick holder or place them horizontally across your bowl.
“When using your chopsticks to take food from a shared dish, flip them around and use the wide end that you don’t eat with to transfer the food from that dish to your own plate or rice bowl. And whatever you do – don’t skewer your food with your chopsticks, master how to use them and impress your hosts instead.”
Seniors first, groups rule
Elders are highly respected in the Far East and it is proper etiquette to let them eat and serve first. When you are dining with a Nepalese family, the senior member of the family, usually a female, will serve to everyone. She will repeatedly offer food, take a little and say thank you.
When dining in Vietnam it is the ‘done thing’ to pass all dishes using both hands. You should do your best to try every dish that you are served before going back to your favourites for seconds.
When you are dining out as a group in Thailand make peace with the fact that all dishes will be shared across the group. As is customary the senior lady will select dishes to fit the group. Usually there will be a good range of fish and meat dishes on offer along with vegetable dishes and some local specialties. Try them all.
A clean plate… or not?
“This is probably the most difficult one to get right,” says Teresa, “because in Vietnam and India you need to show a clean plate if you want a happy host.” By finishing the food put on your plate you are showing respect for the cook and are not being wasteful.
Conversely when in China you must always leave food on your plate. If you don’t you risk offending the host by implying they skimped on the food. When you leave a little food behind you acknowledge your meal was filling and satisfying. It’s also how you signal that you’ve had enough as the host will continue to offer food if you don’t.
Have we whetted your appetite for Asia? Call The Travel Corporation on (011) 280 8400 to enquire about travel options to the Far East or choose from a sample of these outstanding river cruises and guided holidays:
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Japan with Contiki Holidays:
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Priced from R22 750 per person sharing indulge in a Vietnam and Cambodia Adventure. This includes 20 nights’ accommodation with breakfast daily, two lunches and three dinners, air-conditioned private transport, overnight sleeper train, Hanoi Street Food tour and more.
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The 10-day Wonders of China includes all the essentials such as accommodation with breakfast daily, transport, major city sightseeing and more. All guests get to tailor-make their trip by adding on a range of optional experiences such as the Sichuan Opera or the Jintsha Site Museum.
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