Unveiling the essence of Asia

ASIAN FOOD ETIQUETTE – EAT, DRINK AND DINE LIKE A LOCAL

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Dining etiquette in Asia: Things you need to know

We know that you are like us. We cannot stop LOVING the food we eat in Asia. Experiencing different foods is one of the best parts of travelling! The diversity, the colors, the multiple plates, the irreplaceable flavors and aromas from country to country, even region to region. Food is not only a great part of the culture, but also an adventure, a great means to get to know the locals, and to be familiar with other aspects of the culture simply through a dining experience. But with new food comes new customs.

With that in mind, we want to share with you some of the common courtesies and food manners in our Asian homes, so you can be prepared!

If you’re traveling to Asia, you’re in luck – we’ve created a quick guide to dining in six different Asian countries. By the time you arrive, you’ll know everything you need to be an impeccable dinner guest. You’re welcome.


Thailand

A common dining custom in Thailand is to share your food. Everything ordered at a restaurant is meant to be shared amongst the whole group. You can feel free to speak up during the ordering process and ask your host to order a few things you would like to try, but keep in mind those dishes will be shared with the whole table.

In Thailand most food is eaten with a spoon. Forks are only used as devices to get the food onto the spoon, much as western countries would use a dinner knife. There won’t be knives on the table, or anywhere outside of the kitchen for that matter. Food in Thailand is usually cut and served in bite-sized pieces but if you need to cut food smaller, use the edge of your spoon to cut it. Only items not eaten with rice (e.g., chunks of fruit) are OK to eat with a fork. Chopsticks are normally used for eating noodle dishes. You will be given chopsticks if you are eating a meal where they are appropriate, but do not expect them for dishes other than noodle dishes. Nowadays, Japanese food and Chinese food (where they are eating with chopsticks) are very common in Thailand so Thai people will eat those food with chopsticks too.

One more table manner is to eat with your right hand. If left-handed, you can eat with your left hand, meaning spoon in left hand, fork in right, but it is more proper to eat with your right hand. If eating with your hands, as in not using cutlery, always use your right hand, even if you are left-handed. For example, if eating sticky rice or other handheld foods, never touch it with your left hand. Especially remember this when eating food from a communal plate.

Meals from northern provinces such as Isan may include glutinous ‘sticky’ rice served in little baskets. Eat sticky rice by compressing it with your right-hand fingers and use it to scoop up food and sauces. If in doubt, the best bet is to watch what the Thai people around you are doing and follow suit. ‘Kin hai aroy na!’ (the Thai equivalent to bon  appétit).

South Korea

In some South Korean restaurants, it is possible you will be sharing a table with another dining party. Feel free to chat with your group as if you had your own table. Avoid gobbling up your food or lingering over your dishes. Pace yourself with your companions – particularly the eldest person at the table, who should always be the first person to begin eating. Stick to proper chopstick etiquette. Chopsticks in Korea are made from stainless steel and tend to be much heavier than you expect. Avoid resting your chopsticks vertically in your bowl, lie them flat on the table or across your bowl – chopsticks pointing vertically out of a bowl is reminiscent of a symbol of death, incense sticks planted upright in a bowl at an offering table or shrine, and is a faux pas in most of Asia.

Come prepared to drink at the meal. It is considered rude to decline an offer of Shoju (Korean clear spirit distilled from rice, tapioca or sweet potato). Cangai! Expect to hear this common toasting word, which means ‘bottoms up’. You and your neighbors will be expected to refill one another’s drinks throughout the meal, you never pour your own. It is a common custom to make sure that your neighbors’ drinking glass is refilled up quickly after each time they finish it. To show respect when drinking alcohol, you should face away from everyone at the table as you drink, especially the elders, and use both hands to raise the drinking cup to toast and to drink.

Ever practically minded, when dining at a typical Korean grill restaurant you will have a pair of kitchen scissors as part of the cutlery. Kitchen scissors are used instead of knives in Korean dinning, they are used both to cut long noodles and grilled meat. Additionally, your table will include a little bell, this is used to call for service, don’t be shy to ring a ding.

When it comes to payment, generally whoever invited the group to dine will pay for the meal. If you find yourself in charge of the bill, you do have the option to tip. This is by no means expected, but you can leave a 5 percent tip if you are pleased with the service in a restaurant.

Japan

Polite eating in Japan has much to do with your ability to handle chopsticks. Your access to other eating utensils will be quite limited when it comes to Japan. Remember not to wave your chopsticks or skewer your food. You may be required to sit on the floor on a tatami mat, a traditional Japanese mat, at a low-set table. The proper way to sit is with your heels tucked beneath you. Before eating, you will be served a warm towel for you to wipe your hands (this towel is provided for wiping hands only). When it comes to eating, look to your host as a guide. You begin eating when he or she does.

Remember to use soy sauce and wasabi judiciously.  Pour a small amount in the separate dish provided and dip your food. If you want to follow etiquette as closely as possible, always do your best to eat everything on your plate. For after dinner drinks, serve your dining companions and they will do the same for you. It is likely your host will pay for the meal, but if you are the highest-ranking person at the table then the honour of settling the bill will fall to you. Place the money for the meal on the small tray put on the table, rather than handing money directly to the server. Tipping is not required or expected in Japan and can be considered outright rude.

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Cambodia

Cambodia’s cuisine is as spectacular as its landscapes, and that’s saying something. While you’re enjoying the wide variety of dishes you’ll encounter, don’t hesitate to praise if you like the food. Cambodians will always offer people drinks such as water, tea, or juice, and sometimes food, to honor the host, the offer should always be accepted, even if you choose to only take a small sip, or a small bite.

No one will look at you disapprovingly if you want to indulge in a slurp or two. But that doesn’t mean rules go out the window. If you’re dining with a large group, remember that seniority matters. When at the dining table, wait to be told where to sit as you would not want to upset any hierarchical arrangements. The oldest person is usually seated first and should start eating before others. Do not begin eating until the eldest diner does.

When you look down at the table, you might notice a few different things. Place settings will have plenty of forks, spoons and chopsticks, also, like other Southeast Asian countries, no knives. Avoid placing a fork directly in your mouth. Instead, use the fork to guide food onto your spoon or between your chopsticks. When it comes time to pay the bill, don’t fret about tipping. It is welcomed in any amount, but not expected.

Vietnam

Vietnamese meals are also served shared family-style. If you are invited to a Vietnamese home for a meal, be prepared to sit on the floor – best to bear this in mind when dressing for the occasion. As many other Asian customs do, shoes are generally taken off at the front door of the home. Be ready to try lots of different dishes while enjoying lively conversation. You’ll likely be eating with chopsticks and a spoon. If you aren’t confident in your chopstick skills, you can ask for a fork at restaurants. When you finish, don’t put your utensils on the table, but lie them across the bowl. It might be considered rude to put elbows on the table in Western society, but it is expected at a Vietnamese dining table. With both elbows resting on the table, you can hold your rice bowl and chopsticks close to your mouth and food can be almost scooped into your mouth. It is commonplace for  your fellow diners, especially the younger folks, to use their chopsticks to pick and place food from the sharing plates directly into your or each other’s rice bowls, an act of kindness especially done for guests and older folks.

While dining out, it is customary for men to be served first. When it comes to paying, get up and ask for your bill, the Vietnamese consider it rude for servers to bring the bill to the table. Finally, we address the age-old question of tipping. Tipping is not a common custom in Vietnam, so don’t feel any pressure to leave something extra. If you are invited to dine at a local’s home instead of out at a restaurant, bring a gift with you to show your respect and gratitude.

China

China is home to a diverse range of peoples all with their own traditions and customs. This means you’re bound to encounter regional differences in etiquette, but we’ve put together some basic rules to follow once you are ready to sit down and dine with your Chinese friends. Here again, seniority rules is always common when it comes to seating and deciding when to dig into the dishes on the table. Once you’ve begun to eat, remember to avoid resting your chopsticks vertically. This faux pas – something many other Asian countries observe – may seem harmless enough, but it is considered a harbinger of death. When in doubt, just use the chopstick rest that is likely on your table or lie the chopsticks across the bowl edges. Playing with chopsticks is also considered bad manners.

Many Chinese dining tables are round and set with a lazy Susan turntable. Help yourself from dishes in front of you and wait for others to serve themselves before moving the other dishes to come to you. Hot tea will be a staple of most meals and ice is uncommon in China. Servers will bring a steaming pot of Chinese tea almost as soon as you sit down. After that, you and your dining companions will pour for themselves. When one of your companions does you the courtesy of pouring you a cup, you can tap two fingers on the table a few times, which signifies your gratitude. You can signal to the waiter to refill your teapot with hot water by opening up the lid of the pot halfway. Tipping is not a regular practice, but you are welcome to leave one if you are pleased with the service at a more formal eatery.


Enjoy your Asian gastronomic experiences more intimately with the guidance of your fine Secrets retreats hosts. Secret Retreats offers truly authentic and sincere travel experiences that go beyond the typical travel industry offerings, to unveil the essence of Asia to you. For more information and our latest offers please contact the Secret Retreats Concierge at dream@secret-retreats.com.

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