Everyone eats and while we can skip many things while travelling, especially if we see it as a yet another cumbersome business trip, eating cannot be avoided.
We will have to fuel our bodies at every place we have found ourselves at, regardless whether we will resort to the supermarket, the hotel room service, the street markets or the local or Western-style restaurants.
So let us look at some interesting traditions and etiquette related to eating and understand, why eating etiquette matters so much.
Britain’s table manners and eating habits
In Britain where nowadays the traditions regarding table manners and eating as a whole have watered down, there is agreeably one very important thing – saying ‘thank you’ to everyone for everything – regardless whether it is the waiter in a restaurant, the host of a private dinner, or the seller at the fish-n-chip’s kiosk.
In Britain the dishes are served with cutlery – fork, knife and spoon or two (if there is soup and dessert). Yet that is typical for whole Europe and the US. It is also expected that one has finished chewing before taking another bite or drinking. The typical British drink is black tea.
When one is finished with their eating, they could place their cutlery over their plates, so the waiter could take it away or the host needn’t worry to ask for a refill.
In Britain, as well as in Europe, it is considered inappropriate for one to blurb, slurp their food, make strange sounds while chewing, chewing with an open mouth, speaking with mouth full, etc. One is expected not to blow their nose at the table. In more formal restaurants and dinners a napkin could be placed over the lap.
China’s table manners and eating habits
In China, too, there are many food protocols and customs concerning dining. First of all, the dishes even at restaurants are communal. The main dishes are decoratively cut and shaped and are placed close to the most senior people or the guests at the table. Everyone is naturally equipped with an individual serving plate or plates. The elders and guests are served first and oftentimes the host is giving a speech which should be concluded with an invitation for eating.
In terms of tableware, chopsticks are China’s creation and have many symbolic meanings for the Chinese culture, one of which is presenting chopsticks at the wedding as a lucky gift. Like in Japan, chopsticks shouldn’t be stuck in the dish, as this is associated with a practice of leaving food for the dead. At meetings, along with the regular chopsticks called ‘putongkuai’, there would be some communal chopstick for distributing the food called ‘gongkuai’. Spoons are the other cutlery that is generally served at bigger meals.
In terms of beverages, tea accompanies meals almost always. The waiter who refills it at a restaurant, for instance, could be offered a verbal thank you, which is ‘xiexie’ in Chinese. If there is a conversation, when one’s cup is being refilled with tea, however, it might be rude to interrupt it, so a table tap with two bent fingers is used instead. Yet the tapping of fingers and utensils should be used carefully, as in more traditional regions it might be considered rude or ill-mannered. In relation to the teapot, its spout shouldn’t be pointing anyone at the table, as that is considered inappropriate. It should be placed with the spout facing out.
As for the food variety, usually there is a bowl of white rice served to each person and the other dishes are eaten over it, so it gets flavoured with the sauces. Noodles are also typically served towards the end of the dish.
Now some other random interesting tidbits about China. Slurping the noodle soup is not considered impolite
Russia’s table manners and eating habits
Most of rules of the table manners that apply in Europe, are valid in Russia too. The meal starts after all the people at the table have their dish in front of them and the host has wished everyone the Russian equivalent of bon appétit. When seated in front of their plate, one holds the knife with the right hand and the fork – with the left one. One is expected to eat all the bread one has taken. Bread is a staple in the Russian diet and is of a very high esteem. It is considered a bad omen to throw away bread. On the other hand it is ok to soak morsels of bread in soups and souses.
Another unspoken rule is that usually the head of the table is reserved for the most senior or elderly people. They are also the first to be served. During a meal the hands are expected to be seen above the table. A comfortable position might be resting one’s wrists on the table.
Alcohol could be an issue. One is expected to drink vodka or wine or both and to hold many toasts. It is also a dining convention for one to look the people in the eye during the toast and to take a sip after each ‘na zdrovia’. Last, but not least, It is highly appreciated if one tries to say a few words in Russian.
Japan’s table manners and eating habits
In Japan people pay respect to the food with a short phrase, typically uttered before the consumption of the meal. The phrase sounds like ‘itadakimasu’ and its literal meaning is ‘I humbly receive’. This phrase perceived by and explained to many foreigners as simply ‘Bon Appétit’, is actually used to honour and send gratitude to whoever has contributed to the meal by growing the crops, raising the livestock, fishing, hunting, etc. The Japanese have a meal-closing phrase too – ‘gochisōsama deshita ’which means literally ‘thanks for a good meal’.
Other interesting things about Japan include the fact that sometimes the eating places don’t offer Western-style cutlery, and have only chopsticks (called either hashi or otemoto). The pointed ends of the sticks are then placed on the chopstick rests called hashioki when interrupting your meal. There are curious things related to the use of chopsticks. One such is that they shouldn’t be stuck in the food upright or crossed on the table, as these placements of the chopsticks are token of food being offered to the dead. Pointing at people or objects with one’s chopsticks is not well accepted.
Other interesting eating manners in Japan are the mixed feelings about slurping. While traditional Japanese noodles are expected to be slurped, Italian pasta and spaghetti aren’t. Soup is consumed without spoon, by holding the bowl in both hands and drinking from it. As for the famous Japanese sushi, it is eaten in one piece. Some dishes like fried rice or curry are eaten with spoons.
It is expected that the dishes are eaten to the last grain of rice and the plates left in the same position they were initially served in.
As far as drinking is concerned, Japanese have their fair share of manners too. To begin with, alcoholic beverages shouldn’t be poured by one for themselves alone, but shared and served according to rank, age and seniority. Seniors are usually the ones to pour the drinks. The beverages are consumed together, once everyone’s glass is filled. It might be helpful to know that the most inappropriate toast in Japan would be Italy’s “chin chin”, as in Japanese it means male private parts.
In conclusion,table etiquette is a thing worth exploring before heading to a country, especially when the trip is business one or when longer stay is foreseen. Some of the general tips in this article apply to the greater part of Europe, while Asian culture has different but again similar table manners. It is always wise to know something in advance and to show some respect towards the culture.
Last modified: 26.03.2018, edited by: Nils