Don’t make these cultural Pho-pas when eating in Asia

Asia

A group of friends beer with dinner. Source: Shutterstock

YOU may think you’re being polite by eating everything on your plate.

Perhaps you think everyone else around you is being rude as they slurp their soup and suck up the slithery noodles while making an almighty racket.

But you’re wrong.

Asia has a rich history of culinary etiquette, but it’s not continent-wide. So there are lots of variations of eating rules.

Breaking these established rules may get you disapproving looks, while others will get you chucked out of the restaurant entirely.

Here are a few tips and tricks to make you look like an Asian-dining-etiquette pro.

Japan

Sticking chopsticks in your mouth to resemble a vampire-walrus isn’t cool and neither is standing them upright in a bowl of food.

Doing this is thought to bring bad luck, so make sure you use the chopstick holder beside your bowl when you’re not gobbling down your dinner.

Also, avoid passing food from chopstick-to-chopstick as this is a process done at Japanese funerals. However, it’s not food that’s passed around, it’s bone fragments from the deceased.

Some other points to remember, if you don’t want to feel like an ignorant tourist, is to not wave your chopsticks around or point them at people.

Equally, don’t scratch yourself with them, because that’s gross.  And while you may be new to the chopstick game, try to avoid stabbing your food. Take the time to learn how to use chopsticks and impress the locals.

In Japan is it entirely fine to make as much noise as possible while eating as it tells the host and the chefs that you’re enjoying your meal.

Malaysia

If you’ve ever traveled to Malaysia, you will know it is a nation of multiculturalism, stunning natural beauty and home to some of the most delicious Pan-Asian cuisine.

There are three different types of dining etiquette here: Malay-Malaysian, Indian-Malaysian and Chinese-Malaysian, each with their own set of rules.

Malaysians strictly eat with their right hand as the left is for washroom purposes only.

It is polite to let the elders take the helping first if you are eating at someone else’s house. Always remember, only take what you know you can eat as every grain of rice is sacred and should not be wasted.

If you’re devouring a dinner of delicious Chinese-Malaysian food, then be prepared to share. Often, the Chinese will order dishes for everyone and then you pick what you want, place it in your bowl and nosh away using chopsticks.

Perhaps one of the most famous Indian-Malaysian dishes is banana leaf rice. Rice, curry and a selection of scrumptious pickles, chutneys, and accompaniments are served on a giant green banana leaf.

Always show utmost appreciation when dining with Indian-Malaysians and never eat in a hurry. Once you’re done, make sure you fold your banana leaf towards yourself, as folding it away tells your host you hated the meal…which is virtually impossible.

China

The same chopstick rules as in Japan apply to eating a Chinese meal. However, there are a few added rules.

Never leave your chopsticks pointing directly at someone across the table and don’t suck the grains of rice off your eating utensils even at the end of a meal.

Unlike in Malaysia and Japan where it is good practice to eat everything on your plate, in Chinese etiquette, it is polite to leave some food at the end of a meal as a sign that the host went above and beyond to provide you with a good and ample feast.

If you’re dining out, it is courtesy to argue with your host about paying the bill. Insist at least two or three times that you will pay for it or split it. However, don’t ever fully insist on paying the whole bill as it insinuates your host can’t afford it.

Equally, don’t just let your host pay without putting up a fight as it implies your host owes you.

There needs to be a fine balance and one that will take practice.

Thailand and the Philippines


Anyone who has a fear of using chopsticks can heave a sigh of relief as Thailand and the Philippines use forks, knives and spoons to eat.

Both nations pride themselves on having a friendly hospitality industry. Filipino and Thai hosts will go above and beyond to create a great dining experience so it’s important to remember not to lose your temper or get angry in a restaurant if something doesn’t go your way.

This is called “losing face” and you will end up embarrassing yourself more than those you intended your yelling at.

Cambodia

This is a nation where you can expect more to be plonked on your table than you ordered, but nobody is complaining.

Often, restaurants will bring out food you didn’t order. It’s worth trying a bit of everything but don’t worry, as you’ll only be charged for what you eat.

On the table, you will find forks, chopsticks, and spoons. Avoid eating with forks. Instead, use it to place food on your spoon or between your chopsticks.

Vietnam

Expect eating here too big a family affair. The Vietnamese tend to eat together with family or friends and order plenty of dishes for everyone to share.

You should do the same, as it’s the best way to try everything. Also, if you’re dining out, expect the men to be first served first (quite literally feeding the patriarchy).

Also, make sure you always get up and ask for the cheque as it is considered rude for the server to bring it to your table.

Never feel obliged to tip in Vietnam either, it is entirely at your discretion, but everything is so cheap in Vietnam and the food is some of the best in the world – so you’ll probably want to show your gratification.

South Korea

The chopstick rules that apply to all other Asian countries apply in South Korea too.

In South Korea, make sure you let your host know how much you’re looking forward to the meal and always thank them after you’ve finished. Gratitude and politeness are the biggest etiquette winners in South Korea.

Don’t be surprised if your host or servers at a restaurant encourage you to drink, as this is a big part of the South Korean culture.

In fact, it is considered rude to turn down alcohol, but remember to always top up other’s glasses before your own.