One of the most interesting and exciting ways to immerse yourself in the customs and everyday life of a country is to make a concerted effort to eat and drink like a local.
In order to pull this off with panache – and avoid causing unnecessary offense – it’s worth familiarising yourself with native rules and culinary traditions before you leave, which is where this handy guide comes in.
Be courteous in Korea
Showing respect for elders is a hugely important part of Korean culture. If you happen to join a group or are invited to dine with a local family during your travels, don’t start to eat your meal until after the eldest person at the table begins theirs. Similarly, if someone older offers you a plate or passes you a bowl, it’s considered polite to accept with both hands. Before she moved to Dubai, Mishka Grobler spent two years living in Seoul teaching English as a second language, while also writing a column about hidden restaurant gems in the city for an expat magazine. She says eating out in South Korea is a real communal experience: “Meals are made for sharing. It’s unusual to go to dinner with a friend or colleague and order a dish each,” she explains. “Instead, they are placed in the middle of the table for you to pick from every plate. This is lovely, apart from when you order a gorgeous but teeny dessert, and in the time it takes to sip your coffee, your Korean friend has halved it.”
Drink coffee like a local in Italy
While visiting the home of coffee, you’ll no doubt want to sip away with the insouciance of a local, so do note that ordering a milky drink after breakfast will immediately out you as a tourist. Due mainly to matters of digestion, cappuccinos are considered morning beverages only. The mere thought of consuming that much milk after a meal is enough to turn the stomach of the average Italian, who will opt for a post-dinner espresso instead.
In Italy, the coffee-bar experience is a simple one, so make like the residents and keep those requests for flavoured syrups, extra foam and frappuccinos for Starbucks. It’s also worth bearing in mind that a pausa cafe (coffee break) really is just a quick refuelling ritual and not an opportunity to settle in for the long haul with the Wi-Fi password. For that reason, coffees tend to be served at drinking temperature – rather than scalding hot – and are often sipped standing up.
Breaking bread in France
While you’re probably aware that the French take their bread seriously, you might not be entirely well versed in the etiquette that surrounds bread-eating at the dining table.
First up, those slices of baguette or freshly made rolls are intended as an accompaniment to the meal, rather than a precursor to it, so resist tucking in too early. Even more importantly – and this might take a bit of getting your head around – once plucked from the bread basket, bread shouldn’t be balanced on your dinner plate, but placed straight onto the table.
In the pursuit of good manners, you’ll also need to refrain from picking up a whole piece of bread and biting into it. Instead, soft baguettes should be torn into bite-sized pieces and firmer ones cut with a knife and fork. When pâté or cheese is offered, these can be added to the smaller bits of bread individually, rather than spread over the entire slice.
Make plenty of noise in Japan
As table manners go, the rule about not slurping soup has been drilled into many of us from a young age. And yet, anyone planning on eating their way around Japan should prepare to sip loudly, proudly and with gusto. Doing so is viewed as both a sign of appreciation and a compliment to the chef (and it’s even said to improve the flavour of the food). As an indicator of how enthusiastically this is embraced, Dubai resident Emily Churchill-Owen recently spent several weeks travelling around Japan and recounts that in one ramen spot she visited, the slurping was loud enough to drown out the music.
Churchill-Owen also highlights that despite the street-food culture, it’s considered rude to consume food on the go. “One of the main things we noticed was that the Japanese don’t eat and walk. The people there hold a really nice belief that food should be respected and savoured, so even when you buy snacks from a street vendor, there will always be an area nearby where you can stand and eat your food before going on with your day.”
Approach chopsticks with caution in China
To avoid causing offence when eating out in China, there are a few chopstick-based cultural nuances worth taking heed of. No matter how prone to gesticulation you are, never point your chopsticks at your fellow diners; chopsticks are there to facilitate eating, not help reiterate a conversational point. Also steer clear of crossing chopsticks over each other, resting them on your plate, noisily tapping them on the side of a plate or bowl, or using them to spear a piece of food.
Most pertinent of all, never place your chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice. Doing so brings the notion of death to the table and is reminiscent of an ancient and still observed funeral rite, where burning incense sticks are stuck into bowls of rice to honour the dead.
How do you take your cream tea in the UK
If you find yourself in the south of England and you stumble upon a quaint little cafe serving cream teas, may we offer up a word of warning? Do check whether you’re in Devon or Cornwall before setting about layering those freshly made scones with cream and jam.
While the two border counties have both been serving cream teas since the 11th century, the contentious issue of how exactly the meal should be presented has still never been agreed upon. Devonians fiercely maintain that cream is like butter and thus it makes sense to spread over the base of the scone before topping with jam, while those from Cornwall adopt a jam-first stance, arguing that it’s easier to assemble this way around and allows the clotted cream to shine as the crowning glory.
For further insight, a quick Twitter search using the hashtags #jamfirst and #creamfirst will reveal how ardently the issue is debated.
To clear your plate or not to clear your plate
In India, it’s particularly important to eat everything on your plate. This is seen as a sign of respect to the person feeding you, and failing to do so is considered both rude and wasteful, whether you’re eating at home or in a restaurant. The same rule applies in Japan, where not finishing a meal is associated with the concept of mottainai – a feeling of regret over something wasted.
Head to China, though, and things are different. The polite thing to do there is leave a small amount of food behind as a signal to your host that they looked after you, and provided more than enough to eat. Lastly, if you’re in Thailand, where dishes are often placed in the middle of the table ready for everyone to help themselves, it’s always polite to ask around before taking the last morsel from a sharing bowl.
Cutlery is king in Chile
To negotiate the Chilean culinary landscape with ease, you’ll need to do so with a knife and fork firmly in hand. From chicken drumsticks to doughnuts and French fries, the prevailing belief is that food should be eaten with cutlery. Likewise in Brazil, it’s considered offensive to let your hands touch the food you’re about to eat, which is why napkins are often employed to pick up finger food, or pizza and burgers lifted from plate to mouth with the help of your utensils.
The same stipulations don’t apply across all of Latin America, though. No matter how great the risk of spilling refried beans down your top seems, if you attack a pile of tacos with a knife and fork in Mexico, you’re not only likely to cause plenty of mirth, but also be accused of taking yourself too seriously – hand-held is the way to go.
It’s common to eat with your hands, especially if you’re in a traditional Emirati restaurant, at a close friend’s home or eating a particular dish. In this case, only use your right hand both to eat and when offering food or drink to anyone else.
When scooping rice from the spot in front of you, move your hand to the edge of the tray. Make a fist so the rice does not spill, then put it in your mouth. Repeat, making sure that you are scooping from the spot you started from. If they are using cutlery, some Muslims might hold the fork in their right hand and the knife in their left. This is because Islam advises to eat with the right hand only.
Once everyone has finished eating, your host will offer you some Arabic coffee. If you don’t like or want this coffee, ask for tea or something else; try not to decline. If you simply can’t take any more food or beverages, ask for some water and keep it on the table.
Be mindful of ordering alcohol if you’re having a meal with Muslim guests, and certainly don’t offer any to them.