Last week, I began the exploration of cultures and traditions of the Asian dinner table. While there were some consistencies among different countries’ traditions. Some were more specific than others. Thus, I present a glorious breakdown of the basic table manners, by country. Asia is a large continent, so I will primarily stick with South, East and Southeast Asia. And because there are so many, I will list a single, yet quintessential rule of etiquette.
Also, because chopstick rules are also specific, you will find more about them in Part 3.
- While some of the traditions discussed last week pertained to Chinese table manners, there are other rules of etiquette that were more specific to the Chinese culture.
- Dinner is often a communal affair, which means everyone is served from the same dish. Never keep the serving chopsticks from a communal dish, and don’t be offended if your neighbor serves you. 1
- If someone, especially an elder offers you an alcoholic drink. It is considered rude to not accept it. Furthermore, when accepting food, such as a small side dish, you should accept it with both hands cupped in a receiving gesture. 2
- You may be provided with a wet towel (oshibori) that is intended to wipe your hands. Do not use this towel to wipe your face. Small dishes may be picked up so that food may be brought to your mouth. This, however, is typically not practiced with larger dishes; those should be left on the table.3
Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Vietnam
- Wait until the oldest person at your table has started eating before you begin. 4
Indonesia and Malaysia
- Only eat with the right hand. The left hand is considered taboo. This is partly due to the country’s large Muslim population, which considers the right hand more hygienic. 5, 6
- Typically more experienced with Western influences, Filipino cuisine demands using whatever utensil is traditional for the dish’s country of origin. Chopsticks are used in Chinese dishes, but spoons and forks may be served with Western dishes. If there are no utensils offered, you may use your hands. 7
- From all of my experience of eating Thai dishes from Thai women, NEVER season a dish without first tasting it. Truthfully, Thai cooks love to season their food, and rarely is extra seasoning needed. But in those rare occasions, you should at least eat a sample before you add extra sauce.
- I would do this to my mom just to bug her. Other Thai mothers told me it’s because the act of doing so would imply you do not think the person knows how to cook that dish, so you have to “improve” it. (Adding soy sauce after sample still is annoying to some, but then it’s more a matter of personal preference.)
South Asia (the subcontinent)
Bangladesh and Pakistan
- Seating for these dinner tables more resembles a Western culture. The host sits at the head of the table, and honored guests to either side of the host. These guests must also be seated farthest from the door. Serving typically follows this order: Honored guest(s), oldest man, the rest of the men, children and women. 8
- While there are some regional differences as to what is accepted and/or expected, generally, hygiene is considered of utmost importance. Washing hands before and after meals is essential. Also, avoid “saliva contamination,” (uchchishtam in Sanskrit) which is considered impure. This applies to food that has been touched by a used utensil or leftover food. It’s also polite to eat everything on your plate. 9
- Many dishes will be served without utensils. This is known in many countries, especially Central and South Asian countries, as “banana leaf style.” The county has a majority Buddhist population, but there also are many Hindus and Muslims, so you should try to find out beforehand the religion of the party with whom you’ll be dining, as accepted practices tend to differ. Rice is always your base, so you may take a larger portion of that, but take small portions of other dishes. Your host may recommend several dishes, and it’s considered rude not to accept these recommendations. Your stomach could fill quickly with sizable portions. 10