We’ve all heard the saying that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, well what about one person’s ignorance is another person’s offense? One of the best aspects of traveling is getting to experience new cultures, scenery and food. Why go anywhere if everywhere is the same, right? But when you travel to far off or exotic locations, would you know how to behave at the table as to not offend the locals? Here are some faux pas that might seem innocent to the everyday American but to locals abroad will cause great offense.
Thailand – In Thailand the fork is not used to move food into your mouth; instead the fork is used to help scoop the food into the spoon. Western utensils like the fork are relatively new to this area, only introduced in 1897 by King Chulalongkorn. What I want to know is how do they eat spaghetti with a spoon?
France – Cheapskates beware; it is considered très unsophisticated to try and split the bill. Here offer to pony up for the entire bill. As long as you are dining out in France, keep in mind that the bread at the table is not meant to be an appetizer but instead to help you scoop the food onto the fork. I wonder what would be considered proper at a Thai French fusion restaurant…..
Japan – While I think it a bit rude to belch at the dinner table, many cultures feel a nice loud burp is a compliment to the chef. Keeping along those same lines, in Japan it is perfectly acceptable to loudly slurp your bowl of noodles.
Inuit Canada – Along the lines of belching and slurping, some indigenous cultures in Canada feel that it is an act of appreciation to let one rip after a meal. Let’s hope you weren’t serving beans or eggs for dinner.
Middle East & India – Here in the U.S. we have been brainwashed into compulsively washing our hands, especially after using the restroom. Every fast food restaurant and gas station has a barrage of signs reminding us. But in parts of the Middle East and India, reserving your left hand as the wiping hand is the way to go. So with that in mind, and considering many of these dishes are eaten with your bare hands, use only your right hand for diving into that plate of food.
South Korea – It is always wise to respect your elders. You have to admire a country that respects them so much that no one at the table eats until the oldest person takes a bite first.
Italy – “Would you like some Parmesan on top of your pasta?” This apparently is OK. “Would you like some Parmesan on top of your fish?” Now that’s a big NO NO!
China – Be careful how you handle your chopsticks here. It is thought to be in bad taste to leave them upright in a bowl, wave them at someone, point them at anyone, use them upside-down, or tap them. Now I wonder if there is any more logic to this other than a mom long ago teaching her kids how to behave at the dinner table, and it just caught on.
Chile – We’ve all seen the Seinfeld episode where George develops the habit of eating the Snickers bar with a knife and fork. Well he would be right at home in Chile. Manners in Chile are a bit more refined than the rest of South America, and it is thought poor taste to pick up any food with your hands. I wonder how they eat a bag of chips?
Russia – Russia is world renowned for their fine vodka. So you had better drink up! When someone offers you a drink it is thought of as an offering of trust and friendship, so to turn it down would be very impolite. Russians are very passionate about their home brew, so learn to love it neat. Vodka is always served neat, never with ice or a mixer, this would pollute the vodka’s purity.
Mexico – Unlike the folks in Chile, you would be thought a snob in Mexico if you tried to eat simple foods like tacos with a fork and knife.
Ethiopia – Here it is thought to be wasteful to have individual plates. Communal plates and digging in with your hands is the way to go. Let’s just hope they are following the traditions of those in the Middle East and India and keeping at least one hand clean.
So now that you are up to speed on how to behave abroad, at least with regard to the dining room table, get that passport and backpack! Few people are lucky enough to travel the world and experience exotic cultures first hand. Most of us have jobs, kids and sadly, a limited budget. So unless you are Anthony Bourdain or Samantha Brown check out the ethnic neighborhoods near your home and see what new experiences you can try. Many small ethnic restaurants are run by immigrants with recipes from their homeland.