As someone who has traveled to 20+ countries, I sometimes like to consider myself a collector of cultures. Culture collecting is essentially a combination of my 4 greatest passions in life: traveling, eating, drinking, and people watching.
After all that field work and research, I’ve come to one all-encompassing conclusion: If you really want to understand a culture, take a look at its relationship with food. Seriously.
Whenever I travel to a new country, I always try to spend some time wining and dining with the locals. Not only do I walk away with a deeper understanding of that culture’s norms/values, but it’s always a damn good time. Good food, good people, good conversation. What more could one possibly want from life? Nothing. Except maybe a bed. Because food coma. #worthit
For today’s post, I’m sharing some of the coolest (and some of the weirdest) traditions I’ve encountered over the years.
Whether you’re about to take an international journey yourself or are simply curious about the inner workings of foreign lands, I hope you enjoy this post. I also hope it inspires you to pay closer attention to the way in which we dine. Whether that means doing some careful research before your next business trip or simply being more observant the next time you’re at dinner with new friends, take a few moments to appreciate the little nuances that each culture has when gathered round the table. I promise you won’t be sorry.
This was probably one of the first moments in which I fell head over heels in love with international food/bev etiquette. In Argentina, the most popular caffeinated drink of choice is not tea or coffee, but rather yerba mate.
One of my first social encounters in Buenos Aires was on my first day of classes at Universidad de San Andres. Since our professor was running about 15 minutes late for class (a trend that would persist in that class for the entire semester), my Argentine classmates decided to take the opportunity to pass around a mate gourd.
As I watched this seemingly informal encounter, I quickly became aware of the fact that this was very much a ritual with rules. There was a master of mate, if you will, who was in charge of preparing the gourd with just the right ratio of leaves and water. Once prepared to perfection, the gourd was presented to the first person in the circle, with the bombilla (straw) pointing towards the recipient.
Although there was no time restriction or sense of urgency to finish the gourd and pass it back, it was expected that the recipient would drink all the liquid before returning the gourd to the master of mate, again with the bombilla facing the person recieving the gourd. The master of mate would then check to make sure the mate leaves had not gone “flat,” refill it with hot water, and present it to the next person in the circle.
This little mate ceremony is something that can happen in any space, at any time, with any group of people. It’s not a super formal tea ceremony like those of Japan, but rather just a widespread norm across the entire, massive country. If you look closely in the parks, homes, classrooms, and offices of Argentina, you will most definitely catch a group of friends lounging in a circle, talking, laughing, and passing around a mate gourd.
First, can we take a minute to talk about how my trip to Japan was exactly a decade ago. A DECADE. You guys, I’m getting old. But let’s not get into that right now. Back in high school I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Japan for 2 weeks on a student exchange. I stayed with an amazing host family that very generously and lovingly accepted me into their home, showed me around their country, and taught me more about Japanese culture than I ever hoped to learn.
Some of the first things I learned about Japanese dining etiquette were the words spoken before and after every meal. It’s kind of like the Western tradition of saying grace before you dig into your meal, but with less emphasis on religion and more emphasis on gratitude in general.
Once everyone has been seated and served, it is generally accepted to softly fold your hands, bow your head, and say “itadakimasu,” which roughly translates to “I humbly receive.” This is to express gratitude for the people that prepared the meal, the animal that lost it’s life (if eating meat), and the good fortune of food in front of you. Upon finishing your meal, before standing up from the table, it is customary to say “gochisosama deshita,” which roughly translates to “it was a feast.”
If you’ve ever been to Japan or even to a Japanese family’s home, you know that this culture is filled to the brim with little rituals and customs just like this. And one of the best examples of a detail-oriented ritual is a formal Japanese tea ceremony. In Japanese tea ceremonies there is a certain way to wear your kimono, a certain way to sit, a certain way to enter the room, a certain way to place your hands, a certain to receive the teacup, a certain way to adjust it before your first sip, a certain way to place the cup down, and a certain way to return it to your host.
I was fortunate enough to attend a Japanese tea ceremony during my visit, and I was absolutely blown away by the hyper-specific rules and instructions we were given as we were walked through the process. Tea ceremonies are very formal events in Japan, unlike Argentina or England or America. One wrong flick of the wrist, and you could be offending an entire culture! How crazy is that?
3. Hong Kong
One of the coolest things I noticed on my latest trip to Hong Kong was the fact that every place setting had not one but TWO pairs of chopsticks. I mean, I get that they are the utensil of choice in that part of the world, but two pairs just seems excessive, right? Wrong.
In Hong Kong, as in most Eastern cultures, food is generally ordered family style. Family style means that food arrives in big portions and is placed in the middle of the table to be shared by all dinner guests. This is the way I grew up eating food in my own household/family and the first few times I went out for dinner with friends and their families I was completely thrown off when asked to order my own entree. Um. What? No. That’s my dad’s job. Duh. I’m just here to eat, not make decisions.
So this is where the dual-chopstick-setup comes into play: one pair is to serve yourself and others from the family-style dishes, while the second pair is to actually shovel the food into your mouth. Freaking. Genius. I salute you, Hong Kong, and you’re refusal to cross the saliva streams. Good on you.
Obviously China has a whole slew of rules for chopsticks. Don’t use them to point at people/things. Don’t jab your food with them. Don’t leave them sticking out of your bowl of rice (it’s considered seriously bad luck). Etc, etc. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the way Chinese culture embraces the messiness of good eats.
In the states, if you go to a nice restaurant, order a soup, and then proceed to slurp your soup in a loud and noisy manner, you will more than likely be asked to simmer the eff down or leave. If you are this person, I encourage you to go to China. Soup dishes in China are meant to be slurped. If you’re not slurping, you’re doing it wrong. Seriously. People will actually ask if you if everything’s OK with your soup because they will just assume that you’re not enjoying it. When in China, slurps up.
On top of that, the bigger the mess on the table, the bigger the compliment to the chef. I’m not even kidding! It is considered a very good sign if at the end of your meal you have destroyed your tablecloth. It shows that you truly relished the food and could give a crap about eating it in a dainty manner. Now that’s some next level nomnomnoming.
Of course, no post about food culture is complete without mentioning the traditions of my beloved homeland. If you ever come to my house for Indian food, be prepared to get down and dirty.
Indian food is almost always eaten with your hands, but utensils will be provided if requested. For some people, this seems totally barbaric and unclean. For me, it is the greatest comfort of life. It takes me to a place of pure joy and nostalgia where I can experience my food with all my senses. Rip off a piece of bread, break off a chunk of chicken, swirl it around in a tangy chutney, and pop the perfectly balanced bite straight into your mouth.
Because food is generally eaten with your hands, Indian restaurants will always bring you a small finger bowl at the end of your meal. The bowl is filled with not-too-hot water and a few slices of fresh lemon. This is something that happens in just about every restaurant in India: from the super-swank hotel bistro to the hole-in-the-wall dhaba. It’s the most refreshing experience after all that chowing down, and is a great reflection of how Indians go to great lengths to perfect the dining experience.
In addition to the little finger bowls, if you go to any restaurant in India you will notice that waiters will circle the table, spooning a portion of each dish into each person’s plate. This eliminates the need to pass around dishes individually and in many cases decreases the clutter of plates on the table. Just one of the many little things unqiue to dining in India, a country dedicated to quality service at every level.
These are just a few of the observations I’ve made over the years. Of course, there are thousands of other little nuances in hundreds of other cultures, and I can’t wait to experience more and more of them as I continue to galavant across the globe.
I really, really hope that this post has inspired some of you to be more aware and mindful of your dining etiquette while travelling. Although you may not know all the rules right away, you can most definitely be a respectful dinner guest by simply paying attention to the behavior of those around you and asking questions. In my experience, hosts and dinner companions are always more than willing to explain their unique cultural norms when it comes to dining etiquette. It’s also a great conversation starter if you’re in a group of new people!
Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, take a few moments to familiarize yourself with the customs of the culture you are visiting. It can be the difference between being labeled as “that ignorant American” and “that lovely young lady/gentleman who we simply must have dinner with again.”
As a bonus, I've made a Fancy Feast Checklist/Cheat Sheet to help with your prep:
- What are the seating arrangements? Are the seats assigned or is it a free for all? Will we be sitting at a table or on the floor?
- What will the place setting be like? What kinds of utensils can I expect/ask for? Will I be eating with my hands?
- When can I dive in? Should I wait for a host or elder to begin eating before I faceplant into this plate of food? Will we be saying a form of “grace” before we eat?
- Where should I put my hands when I’m not eating? On the table? Under the table? What about my elbows?
- Is it considered rude or polite to leave food in my plate? If I empty my plate, will my host take it as a sign to immediately serve me seconds/thirds/fourths? Is it customary to leave a bit of food in my plate to show that I was served enough?
- Will we be drinking alcohol? How much is a polite/reasonable amount to consume? Will there be any toasts? Will I be expected to give a small toast as well?
And that'll about do it. I always love to hear your stories and observations. Feel free to drop them all below in the comments!
Cheers to your adventures!