Last week, I learned that ritual is significantly important to Asian cuisine. It got me thinking about table manners. Growing up, the acceptable table manners for the Asian dinner table were not the same as the ones I needed with my American grandmother. Slurping, for example, was perfectly acceptable with my Thai mother. She believed it was a sign that you were enjoying your food. American grandmother said it was rude. (Imagine my six-year-old self’s internal conflict.) The conflict reminds me of scene in the 1993 film, “The Joy Luck Club.”
At Thai mom’s you should never leave food on your plate, especially after one serving. This was an insult to the cook (usually her) that indicated you didn’t think the food was good enough to finish. American grandmother was totally OK with leaving food on your plate, as long as you had eaten enough. Even the utensil usage was different. Thai etiquette meant we rarely used a knife. Food rarely needed cutting, and if it did, you would usually use the back of the spoon. Forks, by the way, were shovels. They simply shoveled food onto your spoon. My American grandmother made sure we switched hands so the dominate hand was doing all the primary action – cutting with the knife, scooping salad with the fork, etc.
The best thing about having a Thai mother was she didn’t care where my elbows ended up, as long as it wasn’t in my sister’s face or ribcage.
Of course, mom didn’t always make Thai food. We did live in the U.S., and sometimes she’d make spaghetti or hamburgers and French fries. In those cases, not all Asian table manners applied. I ate less and less at home as I got older. I would eat at friends’ houses or would have to eat something at the food court when I started working part-time jobs. Only the Asian table manners drilled into me as a child remained. So, I decided this week, to look into all of the table manners I never learned.
Basic Asian table manners
There are differences depending on country. I’ll get into that in Part 2.
- Shoes are typically not worn inside the house. This also counts true for the dining room. You should also let the most honored person (usually the host) sit in the middle of the table. The honored guests sit in the middle on the other side, farthest from the door.1
- You may serve yourself, but only in small portions.2 Asian meals are typically shared meals, meaning everyone gets their serving from a larger plate or bowl. (If you think about it, American meals are also this way.) There is more importance placed on sharing. You don’t want to be the selfish one at the dinner table. There is some disparity between countries as to what counts as a proper portion size. But smaller will get you by. If you want seconds, wait until everyone has had a chance for a first round, then go ahead.
- Your dining pace should be determined by the other guests. (Sorry speed eaters.) You shouldn’t smoke at the dining table either.3
- You should not pour your own drink. In many Asian counties, it is considered inappropriate to pour your own drink. Rather, you pour your neighbor or companion’s drink, and they should pour yours. If traveling abroad in an Asian country, you may make a deal with your friend or companion prior to sitting down to eat.
“I think we need a code word,” I suggested to my sister, thinking we would be each others dinner etiquette partner.
“You mean, like ‘I’m thirsty?’” she said, laughing at me.