Growing up, when getting ready for dinner, I had to make sure my hands were washed, and that my napkin was folded properly on my lap. I couldn’t start eating unless everyone attending the meal was present and seated and if I wanted a beverage, it was best to get it before eating commences. If I used a knife to cut something, I was to cut one piece at a time and not cut the entire item. If I wasn’t alternating cutting and eating, the knife was to rest on the side of the plate
with the serrated edge on the rim and the handle on the table. Seconds were encouraged and we helped ourselves—and all food had to be finished on our plate if we wanted dessert.
These were the table manners I grew up with, and what I noticed traveling around the world is that dinning etiquette is upheld, but it varies drastically depending on where you are. In some cultures, it’s impolite to finish all your food, while in others, it’s encouraged. Using your left hand to eat may be considered taboo in some places, while certain utensils are required to be used only for certain foods in others.
It’s important to keep dining etiquette in mind when traveling, especially if you happen to be invited to a resident’s home, as it’s a way to show respect and gratitude to your host and the other attending guests. Etiquette is also important when dining out, as you don’t want to embarrass yourself or appear ill-mannered when it public.
But how do you remember all these rules, given they vary depending on where you are? Well, I’ve created a helpful guide for you to refer to.
Dining in Kenya varies depending on where you are in the country, the ethnicity of those you are with, and the socio-economic status of the host. Keep in mind that if you are invited to someone else’s home, be sure to take your shoes off before walking in the door. Clean hands are also very important as guests are expected to wash their hands before AND after eating.
Once food is served, it’s important to wait until the eldest male present has started eating. Utensils are not typically utilized when eating, unless European food is served. Traditional Kenyan food is often served with ugali—a type of cornmeal made from maize or corn flour and boiled in water or milk until it reaches a dough-like substance—which is used to help scoop up food. When you eat with your hands, be sure to only eat with your right hand, not your left. Beverages are not typically served during dinner either, as it’s considered impolite to eat and drink at the same time.
China is home to many different dining customs, but regardless of where exactly you are, it’s safe to assume that seniority rules. Follow the eldest diner’s lead as far as seating arrangements and when to actually start eating. Chopsticks are customarily used, but in between bites you should never rest them vertically in your bowl as it’s considered bad luck. When not using chopsticks, they should be placed on a chopstick stand which will usually be beside your plate.
It’s also important to note that you should not lick your chopsticks, and make sure you leave a small portion of food on your plate when you’re done eating. Finishing all your food implies that you did not have enough to eat or you were not offered enough food by your host.
Japan is known for fresh fish and more specifically, sushi. Chopsticks are also used in Japan, and while eating sushi it’s advised not to jab or pierce the sushi with your chopsticks. Sushi should not be doused or submerged in soy sauce either, but if desired, the fish should be lightly dipped in it.
Similar to China, when not using chopsticks, they should be placed on a chopstick stand, not sticking out of your bowl or resting across it. If you’re at a restaurant or bar, you may be offered a steamed hot towel, often called “oshibori” which is used to clean your hands. Don’t use the oshibori on any other part of your body, or use it to wipe any surfaces. It is also custom to slurp noodles loudly for several reasons: it’s thought to improve the flavor, allows you to eat hotter foods more quickly, and it lets the chef know that the dish was scrumptious.
If you’re going out to dinner with a group of people while in Thailand, be aware that dishes will be shared among everyone at the table, as sharing when at a restaurant is common. When eating, don’t eat directly with your fork, but rather use the fork to push the food onto your spoon and eat with that. Sharing food is important, but don’t be the one to take the last bite from a shared food dish. As you finish your meal, but sure to leave a little bit of food on your plate but make sure all the rice has been eaten—leaving rice is considered wasteful but finishing all your food implies that you did not have enough.
If you’re going out to eat in Germany, its custom to seat yourself rather than waiting for a host or hostess to seat you. If dinner rolls are served, be sure to break them apart with your hands—don’t bite into them or cut them with a knife.
Only dinner rolls should be eaten with your hands; pizza, fruit, or any other finger food should not be eaten with hands unless in informal occasions. If you’re having fish, be sure to only cut it with a fish knife and if one isn’t present, use two forks to pull the fish apart. Potatoes are another food that should not be cut with a knife, only broken into smaller pieces using a fork. In fact, using a knife over a fork implies that the food isn’t tender enough.
Dining etiquette can be rather formal in Chile, so as a general rule, observe and follow your peers. Make sure that women are seated first and your hands are visible when eating—with your wrists resting on the edge of the table. It’s advised to keep quiet if you have utensils in your hands and only speak once you’ve put them down. Don’t eat with your hands and don’t lick your fingers or pick your teeth at any point during the meal as it’s thought to be vulgar. If you want seconds, they must be offered by another diner—taking seconds for yourself is considered an embarrassment. And be sure to finish all your food as leaving any food on your plate is impolite.
Traditionally, meals in India are served on a rug and people sit around in a circle. Cleanliness is important, as you are to wash your hands before and after eating, ensuring that your fingernails are free of any dirt. Wait to be advised where to sit, and always wait for the eldest person to start eating.
It’s also common to refuse food or refreshment a couple of times before giving in and accepting. Dining is viewed as a sensual experience utilizing the sense of touch, and a steady pace is to be taken while eating. Naan bread is often eaten with meals, used to help scoop up food, but make sure to only eat with your right hand—eating with your left is taboo.
If you’re invited to someone’s home for dinner while in Morocco, be sure to dress properly—wear nice, modest clothing. Dinner is often served at a knee-high round table and or served on a rug on the floor with a large communal plate. Typically, a water basin is brought around to wash your hands—water is poured over your hands into the basin, and you’re given a towel to dry them off.
Don’t begin eating until the host has blessed the food or begins to eat and make sure to only take food from the portion of the bowl that is closest to you—don’t reach across or to different areas of the bowl. Never put your hands directly in your mouth and make sure when reaching for food that it’s taken with your right hand either using a piece of bread and your thumb or using your first two fingers. Once you’ve finished eating, don’t use your napkin—the water basin will be brought around again to wash off your hands.
Now I’m not saying these are the rules that must be followed anywhere you dine in the listed country as there are many factors to consider when understanding international dining etiquette. Expectations may vary depending on the region of the country you’re in, the ethnicity or socio-economic status of the locals, and many other things. When in doubt, look at your peers and follow their lead.
Food is amazing, and traveling is one of the best ways to explore different flavors and spices. But as food is closely related to culture, one must also consider the cultural norms associated with dining. It shows respect to the cook, the fellow diners, and makes you feel more immersed with culture you’re surrounded by.
That’s all for now,
CulinaryTravel. (2022). Dining Etiquette: A Guide to Table Manners & Tipping in 46 Countries. The Culinary Travel Guide. https://theculinarytravelguide.com/dining-etiquette-around-the-world/
Dining Customs Around the World | USS Nemo Restaurant. (2022, January 6). USS Nemo Restaurant. https://ussnemorestaurant.com/international-dining-customs/
Global Dining Etiquette: A Guide to Eating Around the World. (2019). Invaluable. https://www.invaluable.com/blog/global-dining-etiquette/