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Oct 01

Asian Food Etiquette – Eating, Drinking and Dining Etiquette

Street Food in Bangkok.

We all want to be welcomed when we travel – especially around the dinner table. Nobody wants to make social blunders when it comes to eating. Should we accept another glass of tea? Is it impolite to leave food on our plate? What should I do with these chopsticks when I’m done?

We definitely see travellers behaving less offensively when it comes to eating than they do with how they dress, but we cover so much food here that we thought we’d share some advice from the experts when it comes to Asian food etiquette and how to conduct yourself when eating, drinking and dining in the region.

I consulted food experts from across Asia – from chefs to food tour guides – for a story I did early this year on how travellers should behave when it comes to eating in Asia, from visiting an Asian home to dining out in Asian restaurants. You can read advice from some of the same experts on greetings, gestures, and good manners here in my previous post.

Chance encounters
For many travellers, an invitation to dine at a local’s home can be the highlight of a trip, especially in South East Asia where the cuisines are so diverse and delicious. Often invitations to eat with locals don’t come in advance but happen by chance. Glance at a family eating together on the ground floor of their shop-house and they might call out to you to join them. A friendly conversation in the street can often lead to a spontaneous invitation to dine.

“Cambodians will always offer people drinks such as water, tea or juice, and sometimes food,” Sambo Pat, chief concierge at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, Siem Reap told me. “To honor the host, the offer should always be accepted, even if the guest just takes a sip or small bite.”

“Never turn down food or a drink offered when visiting someone’s home in Bhutan,” advised Choden Dorjee, an executive at Amankora resort in Bhutan. “Even if you don’t eat or drink, simply accept the gesture and say thank you.”

“If you visit a Vietnamese family when they are having a meal, they will invite you to join them,” warned Tran Hoang Viet, guest relations manager at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay. “One of the family members will stand up and get a bowl and chopsticks for you, before you have even accepted. To be polite, you shouldn’t refuse.”

Visiting an Asian home
If travellers receive a meal invitation in advance and have some warning, how should you prepare, what should they wear, and should they take a gift, I asked the experts.

“Firstly, when visiting a Vietnamese family for a meal, be prepared to sit on the floor. Women guests should bear this in mind when dressing for the occasion. Shoes are generally taken off at the door,” explained Tu Van Cong, a food writer, guide, and owner of Street Food Tours Hanoi. “A small gift of fruit, flowers or a bottle of wine for the host would be appreciated but a big fuss won’t be made.”

Pauline Lee, who runs Simply Enak food tours in Kuala Lumpur, said that in Malaysia it’s also considered good manners to take a gift. “If you’re not sure what to bring the safe choice is always a basket of fruit,” she suggested.

“In Bhutan, bringing along a gift, even something small, some food or a textile, is always appreciated,” said Choden Dorjee. “And removing one’s shoes is respectful and a necessity.”

Keep in mind that there are some things that aren’t welcome. “If you’re thinking about taking a gift, don’t give handkerchiefs, a mirror or a comb, as they signify a funeral and separation,” warned Nguyen Huong Thuy, a manager at Evason Ana Mandara Nha Trang resort, Vietnam.

“And if you wear shorts, they’ll think you don’t respect them. Don’t wear black clothes, which are thought to bring bad luck. Red or yellow, on the other hand, signify happiness and luck.”

“If you’re invited into the home of a Malaysian, you’ll be expected to remove your shoes. Malaysians remove shoes to keep the house free from dirt,” explained Bhaskaran Kessavan, concierge of the Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur. “A tip: look to see if there are shoes outside the front door to know what to do!”

Greeting and seating
Once you’re at someone’s home, what next, I asked?

“In formal or semi-formal situations, it’s better to wait for the hosts to make the introductions,” advised Pitak Srisawat, chief concierge at the Four Seasons Bangkok. “Self-introductions are rare in Thailand.”

In Malaysia, it’s important to make an effort to show courtesy to more mature hosts, according to Pauline Lee. “If your hosts are older men and women, addressing them as ‘uncle’ and ‘auntie’ is considered polite,” she said.

Showing respect for older hosts is essential in Vietnam too, although Tran Hoang Viet warned travellers not to get too familiar. “In Vietnam culture, young people cannot hug elderly people, even in a family. Young people greet elders by folding their arms in front of their chest (and clasping their hands as if in prayer), and stooping down respectfully. Also, if an elderly person gives you something, you must receive it with two hands and stoop down. Saying thank you is a must.”

Similar customs exist in Cambodia. “When invited to the dining table wait to be told where to sit as you would not want to upset any hierarchical arrangements,” advised Sambo Pat. “The oldest person is usually seated first and should start eating before others. Do not begin eating until the eldest diner does.”

What if travellers are taking a photo to remember the occasion? “When standing or posing for a picture with an older person, a younger person should never put his or her hand on or arm around an elder’s shoulder,” Pat warned. “It’s considered very rude.”

Eating and drinking etiquette
Once seated around the Asian dinner table – which may be the floor in some situations – respect for elders continues although guests are also valued.

“In Vietnam, eating generally wouldn’t start until all guests have arrived. Usually younger people will wait for older people or guests of honour to start eating or the host will invite guests to start,” said Tu Van Cong. “It’s typical for younger folks to put food into the bowls of guests and older people.”

“You shouldn’t reach for the meat first,” advised long-term Hanoi resident and cookbook writer Daniel Hoyer, who runs Eating Vietnam food tours. “It’s more polite to take vegetables first and don’t take too much of the nicest things. If your hosts want you to eat more, they’ll offer you more.”

“A host will usually continue to offer you food as a show of hospitality in Malaysia,” explained Pauline Lee. “It’s okay to decline when you’ve had enough, but try to stay polite – a smile always does wonders.”

“Meals for occasions will start with a toast before people start eating. Toasts are very common during Vietnamese meals so expect to say cheers many times for many reasons,” warned Tu Van Cong. “The meals are generally lively with banter and can involve lots of drinking, particularly amongst males. Be aware that rice wine is strong, so be assured that when you empty your glass it will continue to be filled. The same goes for food.”

Tran Hoang Viet offered advice on how to drink rice wine: “The traditional way is that everyone at the same table shares one small cup of wine, then one by one (the eldest first), drinks the cup and then refills it for the next person. Asking for a personal cup when everyone is sharing is very impolite.”

The art of drinking tea
Tea is often offered in Asian homes instead of alcohol, before, during, or after a meal. Grant Thatcher, the publishing editor of Luxe Guides, who has lived in Hong Kong for 16 years, said that because tea drinking is such an important part of the local culture it’s essential for visitors to understand the etiquette.

“When visiting a Chinese home, the host will pour the tea for you and present you with your cup in both hands. Receive the cup with both your hands and sip the tea before putting it down,” Thatcher explained.

“If you’re at a restaurant with a large table of people and the tea pot is near you, always serve those who you can reach comfortably before helping yourself, and hold your hand over the lid to prevent it falling off,” he suggested. “Never place the lid on the table as this is considered rude and unclean.”

“If someone else is serving you tea, tap the table two or three times as a gesture of thanks. It’s polite to tap the table with two fingers to thank someone for pouring tea, as two fingers symbolise your two knees so it’s a gesture of deference,” Thatcher explained.

Chopsticks, forks or spoons?
Determining when it’s appropriate to use chopsticks, forks or spoons can be challenging for some travellers, even other Asians, as each country has different customs.

“In Thailand, chopsticks aren’t used everywhere or for all dishes. We typically use a fork and spoon to eat most dishes and the spoon is the primary utensil where the food is pushed onto the spoon by the fork,” explained Thai chef Ian Kittichai. “Traditionally, we only use chopsticks to eat noodle dishes, as noodles were brought to Thailand by the Chinese – as were chopsticks. Nowadays, we also use chopsticks to eat Japanese food, as that’s how the Japanese eat.”

“All dining in Vietnamese homes is communal so dishes are placed in the centre and people generally serve themselves with their own chopsticks,” said Tu Van Cong. “Sometimes hosts will use the handle end of the chopsticks to put food in a guest’s bowl.”

“Vietnamese will eat a meal using their own bowl and chopsticks, yet the spoon will be shared,” Tran Hoang Viet elaborated. “When you finish, don’t put the chopsticks on the table, but on the bowl. In a home, the wife or first child will be in charge of serving rice and you should accept at least two bowls of rice before saying “I’m full”.”

“In Malay culture, the traditional way of eating food is with your hands – an enjoyable way to eat a meal but do make sure you wash your hands before eating,” advised Pauline Lee. “And only scoop food with your right hand, as the left hand is considered dirty.”

“Usually chopsticks or other utensils are provided to scoop the food into your bowl to prevent your own chopsticks from touching the food that remains on the table,” Lee elaborated. “A tip: never leave your chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice, as this resembles sticks of incense used as offerings to the deceased. Playing with chopsticks is also considered bad manners.”

When you simply can’t eat another thing
What’s acceptable behaviour when you can’t eat anymore or need to be on your way?

“To indicate that you’re full, it’s best to leave something in your bowl so as to show it, otherwise food will continue to be offered or put in your bowl,” explained Tu Van Cong. “Leaving food on the plate is not considered rude.”

Who picks up the bill if you’ve shared a meal on the streets or in a restaurant?

“The person who invites will pay,” advised Tu Van Cong. “Splitting the bill is not common, especially not when an occasion is being celebrated.” Daniel Hoyer elaborated: “You can offer to pay, but your offer may be rejected. A reciprocal invitation is a polite way to return the favor when the host pays for you.”

“In Thailand, it’s not uncommon for wealthier friends to pay the bill for drinks or dinner,” said Pitak Srisawat, adding: “While Thai customs may seem conservative to Westerners, Thai people are generally relaxed and easygoing and will rarely take offense if a foreigner fails to follow Thai etiquette.”

Tun Van Cong agreed. “Dining in Vietnam is fairly casual with not too many rules. Usually visitors to Vietnamese houses are treated as guests of honour and if they’re foreigners they’re not expected to know any of the etiquette involved.”

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  1. Christina Pfeiffer

    An excellent guide to Asian etiquette, Lara. Having grown up in Malaysia, I can relate to it. May I add that when dining out in a restaurant, the issue of who pays is huge. In Malaysia, it’s considered impolite not to fight for the bill. At the very least, you need to put up a good show of pretending to want to pay.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Thanks, Christina – excellent advice!

  2. Alex | Partial Parallax

    Asian culture is so vastly different to that of the west and I’ve been finding that out in Korea. Many customs exist that are so different such as you can never pour your own drink it has to be poured (usually by the youngest member) by someone else.
    Also when pouring the drink you must hold the container with two hands and the person whose cup you’re pouring into must hold the cup with two hands.
    Of course there are many other rules but this I find the most different.

    1. Lara Dunston

      I’ve always liked the custom of using two hands in Asian countries, when presenting business cards for instance. It signifies seriousness and respect, that you’re giving that person the attention they deserve during that moment. Nice.

      Thanks for these additional observations – they’ll be helpful to readers. And thanks for dropping by :)

  3. Andy

    Great tips here. Cultural norms with respect to eating are some of the hardest to get used to and learn. Being respectful is hard when you do not know what is normal.

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Andy – exactly. Fortunately, with the abundance of information out there, it doesn’t take much research to find out what those cultural norms and local customs are. But sadly most young backpackers either don’t care to find out or simply don’t care to respect them.

  4. Sand In My Suitcase

    Great tips… We’ve found there’s more emphasis in Hong Kong, in particular, on eating out. Families, groups of friends: everyone has fun as a large party over dinner in a restaurant. Partly that’s because people live in smaller apartments (and it’s nice to get out). Here in North America, we spend our money more on paying down the mortgage :-). We like that Thai custom of the wealthiest in the group picking up the tab!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Thanks! Yes, the Chinese are great for going out with big groups of family and friends, aren’t they? In Australia we have them to thank for our weekend yum cha culture, which is popular no matter what your cultural heritage. Aussies have big mortgages too, but they have become a country of foodies, so they somehow still find ways to continue to pay for meals out.

      I do like that Thai custom too! Need to find more rich Thai friends! ;)

  5. Natalie

    Excellent advice Laura. It would be a crime to spoil such exquisite food with sloppy manners!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Thanks, Natalie! I was thinking more about spoiling the relationship, but great point! :)

  6. Ivana

    Many thanks for the tips, especially for table manners. Much appreciated as we are heading soon to Vietnam.

    Cheers and many safe trips in 2014!!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Thanks! You’re going to love Vietnam! When are you going? We have some stories on HCMC/Saigon here on GT but we will have a lot more stories going up soon from Hanoi, Sapa/Bac Ha, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, and Saigon again, so drop back or sign up to our feed. Or do simply leave any questions if you have any. We spent 7 months in Vietnam in 2013. Happy New Year!

    2. Ivana

      Hi, Lara,
      we might be there around Feb or March, still need to decide when exactly and where to go.
      Anyway, thank you for an offer to get more info from you. We will follow you up and definitely contact you in case for more details of Vietnam.
      Thanks :)

    3. Lara Dunston

      Hi Ivana – fantastic! And, yes, do let us know if you need tips. I’ll try hard to get the Vietnam posts up soon.

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