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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Slupring and Burping Around the Globe

(All food and flag images in this post have been released to the public domain.)
Having married into an Asian/Islander family, I am often reminded how different table etiquette can be across cultures. As a child, I was overtly taught to chew with mouth closed, don't slurp, etc. My husband's culture doesn't overtly teach eating etiquette, but children learn through observation that a certain degree of sound effect is acceptable, even polite, when eating. What might seem to be lack of manners in one culture is actually another culture's version of showing approval for the meal. 

My cross-cultural dining/marriage experience has got me fascinated with table etiquette across the globe, beyond the stereotypes that we've all heard about burping and slurping at the Chinese table. 

So I asked a few of my fellow world travelers and multicultural bloggers about their world dining experience:

Tagine-cooked chicken & vegetables
Amanda at MarocMama has a helpful list of to-do's and to-don't's about eating Moroccan-style, including: do wash your hands before eating, do not use your left hand for eating, do not use the same piece of bread for a second dip into the communal dish, do eat from the section of the communal dish in front of you. Stephanie of InCultureParent learned that last one the hard way, when, at the end of a big family dinner, her Moroccan husband told here she had been eating a great uncle's food the entire night!

gobi aloo, seekh kebob, beef karahi
When CoreyAnn of Adventure Bee married a Pakistani, she learned to eat many more foods with hands rather than silverware. Naan or other breads are often used as the main carrying tool for food from plate to mouth, with some dishes allowing the use of silverware. Now in Malaysia, CoreyAnn relates that every little morsel is picked up with fingertips, including the curried & spiced dishes that stain the hands! Fortunately, there is often a "ketor" in place for rinsing the fingertips.

typical Nepali plate, divided into sections
Kathy, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, remembers learning a very specific posture of the right hand to be used for eating, but said that she could remember little else of the specifics of table manners in Nepal, for an interesting mix of reasons: As a Westerner, she was outside the "caste" system; being casteless defaults to being the in lowest class, in which case one would rarely be invited to eat inside a Nepali home. Rather, a dinner invitation might find you seated outside the home, even while being served the same food the family is eating inside. The occasions that Kathy found herself eating indoors with a hosting family, she relates that she cannot comment on eating habits, as she never looked directly at fellow diners across a table. Rather, Nepalis generally sit in a row on mats on the (dirt) floor, side by side with anyone else who is eating. It appears that in Nepal, eating is more of a utilitarian function of survival, not at all the social event it is in the First World, therefore dining etiquette is a non-issue.

Malaysian satay street vendor
Lawyer turned CEO of Travertine Spa Collection, and international foodie, Terry has eaten in Michelin 3-star restaurants around the globe. Yet his fondest international eating experiences have come from street vendors in Malaysia. Among other vendors (deep fried sweet potato balls, roasted chestnuts, deep fried bananas, fresh star fruit juice), satay vendors are everywhere, and each has its own unique flavor. Terry recalls regularly coming home from work, quickly changing into a lungi, and buying thirty sticks of satay (with red onion, cucumber and peanut sauce) to enjoy informal dinners with friends on a condo terrace overlooking the Petronas Towers. Despite the informal company, talking while chewing is seen as impolite, and burping at the table is generally not a compliment to the host in this country.

Costa Rican casado
Crianza of Spanglish House points out that there can be much variation by family, no matter the culture. This is certainly the case for Leanna from All Done Monkey. Despite the fact that Costa Rican families generally enjoy long family dinners (think: hours!) together, Leanna says her husband's Costa Rican family rarely eat together, presumably because it is such a large family that it is easier to eat in shifts.

some of hubby's fave Filipino dishes
Shift-eating is something I'm still trying to wrap my head around in the Filipino eating circuit, too. Or, more accurately, how one understands how long to wait before taking food when the host offers it. I have been plagued for years by the awkward uncertainty of the point at which it really is okay to take the food being offered. Somehow, though, I always do end up getting more than enough to eat!

Any funny or educational stories from your travel dining experiences?


  1. Love this article! Table manners and customs are fascinating to me and my kiddos (who think anything related to bodily functions is hilarious) are gonna love talking about it tonight.

    1. Besides the bodily functions, I think Western kids are fascinated by the thought of eating an entire meal with their fingers. We'll be trying that soon with a Moroccan recipe from MarocMama, and I know my 5 y/o is going to love it!!!

  2. What a fun post! Thank you for including my experiences here! I loved reading everyone's stories, especially Stephanie's about eating someone else's food the entire night :) Beautifully done, Julie!

    1. I know, Stephanie's story is too funny! I really enjoyed putting this together; thanks for sharing your insight.

  3. What a great post! I think we take table etiquette for granted, and it can be quite an eye opener when experiencing the differences - and so important for kids, and adults!, to be open to it. I loved reading everyone's experiences.