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Worldwide dining etiquette

Helpful hints on worldwide dining etiquette

Head of International Travel Law Nick Harris

Author:
Dated: 28th October 2015

We live in a shrinking world, once-exotic regions now reachable with a low-cost flight and relative ease. But it's worth remembering that the time-honoured habits accepted at foreign dinner tables won't necessarily change just because those countries are now popular holiday destinations.

With this in mind, and to save you embarrassment when you next sit down to teriyaki in Tokyo or a bisque in Brittany, here's Simpson Millar's potted guide to international table manners. Bon appetit!

Europe

Breakfast lunch dinner all inclusive holiday
  • Dining in Europe, particularly in France, Spain, Italy and Greece, is a serious business. Unless you're holidaying in the Parisian banking quarter you're unlikely to see a local grabbing a quick lunchtime baguette at the workstation. In rural areas lunch alone can last 2 hours, with all local shops and garages religiously closed. So if you're taking the kids, it's best to be certain they won't get fidgety from the enforced inactivity.
  • Wherever you dine in Europe, resist putting your hands in your lap. After all, you could be concealing a weapon – or so fellow diners would have thought in the 18th century. It's acceptable to rest your wrists – but NOT your elbows – on the table.
  • Spanish diners love the 'sobremesa': it's that period immediately after eating when you digest your food and chat to your companions. Don't simply get up and leave the table; as with many things in less frantic parts of the world, there's no hurry – and you are on holiday.
  • In Greece, don't be surprised if your host insists you have a 2nd or even a 3rd helping. It's polite to accept, even if you've had your fill.
  • In Germany, don't cut your potatoes with your knife. To your hosts, this means insufficient cooking time, so mash your spuds with your fork.
  • Hungarians won't propose a toast with beer. But with wines and spirits, it's fine to chink glasses.
Dining abroad

Africa

  • In Ethiopia, it's perfectly normal to see locals feeding each other by hand. This practice, called 'gursha', is a sign of hospitality; that participants are bonding socially and are trustful of each other.

Middle East

  • Many Muslims refuse cutlery and consume food only with their right hand. The left hand, which maintains hygiene, is regarded as unclean.
  • Like in many cultures, in the Middle East food and those who prepare it are considered worthy of great respect. If you accidentally allow bread to fall, reclaim it from the ground, kiss it and hold it briefly to your forehead prior to returning it to your plate.

Eurasia, East and South Asia

Raise a toast on holiday
  • At dinner in Georgia, expect much boisterous toasting. The 'supra' can go on throughout the meal (happily for some, the glasses are usually small).
  • In Korea, using both hands to accept food from someone older is a mark of respect, as is allowing them to commence eating before you.
  • In China and Japan, show how much you enjoyed your meal by slurping and lightly burping – it'll be considered high praise by your hosts.
  • If you finish your meal and put your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl...don't. In Japan it means you're offering your food to the ghost of someone departed. Rather use the special little rest, or put them back on your plate.
  • A lot of Asians frown on consuming every last morsel. The offended locals, assuming they've given you too little, will keep replenishing your plate. You can signal that you've had a sufficiency by leaving some food uneaten.
  • Wait for a fellow diner to replenish your drinks, instead of refilling your own glass.
  • In Thailand, a fork is only used to push food onto the much-preferred spoon.
  • Don't tip in Japan – it's considered an insult, suggesting he's low-paid and menial.
  • In the Indian sub-continent, never offer anyone else at table, not even your Western companions, a taste. Once food is on your plate, it's considered spoiled.
  • Before a meal in India you should wash your mouth as well as your hands. And don't be afraid to lick your fingers; your host will take it that you enjoyed the food. But don't verbally thank your host – that's regarded as a type of payment. Better to return the compliment by returning the dinner invitation.
Dining etiquette

South and Central America

  • In Mexico, only snobs use cutlery on a taco. Eat this delicious filled tortilla by hand, as if you're scoffing asparagus in Britain.
  • Mexicans, Venezuelans and Colombians love to haggle, especially over a paying a restaurant bill. Don't be shy of accepting another's kindness then reciprocating the invitation – and insist upfront on paying next time.
  • As delicious as you might find Chilean food, helping yourself to seconds is simply not done. Your host is bound to offer you more, so hang in there.