Enjoying a traditional Chinese meal with fellow travelers, Beijing, China
Ever wonder why, when you're eating in a foreign restaurant while traveling, you feel like you're getting odd looks from other patrons? True, it could be your day-glo pink visor with "I Heart Las Vegas" printed in rhinestone letters. But it could also be your table manners. At home, you may be Emily Post incarnate, but dining etiquette varies widely throughout the world. Each country has its own strictly observed set of dining rules, but the good news is that, even though specific customs vary, the general theme throughout the world is the same: try not to infringe on the enjoyment of the dining experience of others. This is why, in North America for example, we try not to reach over the plates of others or brandish sharp utensils in the air, and avoid placing our elbows in each others' bowls of linguine. Don't get too wound up in adhering perfectly to other culture's dining rules, though. Luckily for travelers, most countries have a "foreigner escape clause" as in, "Oh, poor thing, she can't help herself because she's a foreign tourist and doesn't know any better". In other words, no one really expects you to know and understand all of local custom. Most errors are forgivable and understandable and if you keep a good sense of humor, smile and try to be as polite as possible, all will be well. But wouldn't it be nice to show off your knowledge and respect of local culture and general sense of worldliness to local diners and enjoy a fantastic meal to boot?
The huge, colorful, tasty variety of freshly prepared Thai food, Bangkok, Thailand (photo courtesy of http://www.ivebeenthere.co.uk/)
Thailand: some of the best food in the world can be found in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, for example, offer unforgettable culinary experiences. Even the street food is colorful, fresh, spicy and amazing. Eating on the street in any country is, of course, much less formal than eating in restaurants, but don't let restaurants intimidate you. The Thai are friendly, laid back people and you will have little trouble ordering and eating. The Thais use a spoon as their main utensil, held in the right hand, using a fork held in the left hand to push the food onto the spoon; knives aren't used at the table. Don't put the food directly into your mouth using the fork (this is akin to using your knife to put food in your mouth in the West). Chopsticks are used if noodles are served, but this is a bow to China or Japan. Unlike in the West, you don't need to wait until everyone has received his or her food before you begin eating; you can begin as soon as you are served. If you have had enough to eat, try to leave a little food on your plate (except rice, which is considered wasteful to leave uneaten) or you will be served a second helping. The assumption is that, if you finish everything, you are still hungry.
A typical Japanese meal, allowing a diner to pick and choose (http://www.foodservicewarehouse.com/)
Japan: the style of Japanese food varies widely from sushi to the wildly popular myriad noodle dishes to omelets to very formal, multi course dinners. Chopsticks are used widely in Japan, so proper etiquette is important. Hold your chopsticks near the end, not near the middle or the tips. Don't rub your wooden chopsticks together before you start to remove splinters; this is considerd an insult as it implies that the chopsticks are of inferior quailty. Never wave your chopsticks over food while making a decision or point them at your fellow diners or restaurant staff (you wouldn't do this with your knife and fork in the West). Never stick chopsticks in food, especially rice, as this is a funeral custom. Once you have put your chopsticks in your mouth, use the opposite, blunt end to pick up food from a communal dish (again, you probably wouldn't use your own fork to take food from a shared dish). Sushi can be eaten with the hands or chopsticks (either is correct) and should be eaten in one bite. Never mix wasabi into your bowl of soy sauce, creating a grayish, sludgy mess. This is incredibly off putting to the Japanese and insulting to the sushi chef, who spends a great deal of time creating perfectly balanced flavors in each piece created. Think of preparing a delicious, perfectly grilled steak, only to have your guest mix ketchup, mustard and steak sauce in a bowl, and proceed to smear it over the top. Don't place a slice of ginger on top of a piece of sushi and eat it; ginger is meant to cleanse the palate between different-tasting items. Noodle soups don't usually come with a spoon, because the diner is expected to sip the soup, then eat the solids with chopsticks. By the way, it's perfectly acceptable, if not preferable, to slurp your noodle soup loudly. This one is a bit of a challenge for non-Asians, as it goes against everything we've been taught since childhood, but once you get into the habit, it's hard to stop.
Spain: European countries tend to be similar in their table manners, but some (England, Germany, The Netherlands) are more subdued than others (Spain, Italy, Greece). The Spanish look upon a meal as a small celebration to enjoy the company of family or friends, as well as the food and drink. As in most of Europe, keep your hands above the table. This tends to be a problem for visitors from the less urban parts of the U.S. and Canada, who have been taught to keep hands, elbows and arms off the table. This practice is unnerving to most Europeans, so keep your hands where other diners can see them. In cities, do not use your bread to clean your plate or to dip into your soup (a caveat here: I've seen many rural Europeans use their bread for everything but cleaning off the tablecloth, so to be safe, follow the customs of your fellow local diners). Keep up your end of the conversation. As a guest, you are expected to contribute stories, jokes and generally to entertain and enjoy the company of your hosts. Tapas (small plates of appetizers) and jerez (sherry) go hand in hand in Spain and are a wonderful way to try different foods while traveling from bar to bar in true Spanish style. The Spanish tend to have one type of tapas (un plato) at one place with a particular type of sherry, then move to another bar for the next tapas plate and another type of sherry. In some tapas bars, the bartender serves you, in others, it's self-serve. Just observe what others are doing and follow along. Remember that mistakes are inevitable but can add to the fun and cultural experience of travel. Like I always say, if everything goes as planned when traveling, you haven't really traveled. And hey, look on the bright side: if you commit some horrendous breach of etiquette, irretrievably embarrassing both yourself and those dining with you, think of the fabulous travel stories you'll be able to tell your friends when you return home.