I have always found dinner disasters very amusing. The ones in which somebody spills chicken gravy on the white dress of the pretty lady sitting next to them. Or when someone struggles to slice the beef with their fork and knife which, by the way is ridiculously blunt, only to have it fly sharply over the table and land in someone else’s soup bowl. Splash! (Of course, I’d be mortified if I was the subject).

But these are not the only goof-ups that can happen. You may think are a smooth sophisticated diner, you may know your forks and knives, and chopsticks and dips, but when travelling to a different country, the rules of the game are all different. Every country has a different dining culture. A gesture that is integral to your culture might seem totally inappropriate or out of place in another setting, another culture.

Take for example what happened when during the Indian freedom struggle, Jawaharlal Nehru had to serve time in jail. Now Nehru was a sophisticated man, had had an English education, and was more English in his manners than Indian. He urged the prison authorities to bring a dining table to the jail.

Now one day it so happened that a small-time thief was sitting next to Nehru at the dining table. During the meal, he wanted salt, which was kept on Nehru’s side of the table. Not wanting to disturb the great leader, he leaned over Nehru and stretched his hand to grab the salt shaker. Nehru was furious and reprimanded him for his clumsiness and asked him why he didn’t ask him to pass the salt. The poor thief, who was adhering to the Indian convention of not seeking a personal favour from an elder, was deeply embarrassed and apologized immediately.

So, you see even the best of intentions can be misinterpreted in a different context. Here is a list of dining etiquette specific to cultures, and which if not taken care of might land you in trouble.

Don’t Hurt the Sentiments of Chefs in Portugal and Switzerland!

Don’t ask for salt and pepper! That is just so rude. You mean to say the dish is lacking in the most basic of ingredients? That you need more spice to make it edible? Ouch! The chef is hurt! He was last seen crying and his tears dripping into the dish he was making. “Now that should take care of the saltiness,” he was overheard saying to himself in between sobs.

The High and Mighty French

Don’t split the bill. Either pay the whole or don’t pay at all. Splitting a bill is oh-so-pedestrian for the fashionable class-conscious Frenchman. And so is discussing money matters over dinner.

Ooh and bread is more of a utensil than a food item. Of course, it’s edible but the French like to eat food off it. But if you have to eat it, don’t bite into it; just tear off a small piece. Yeah, leave it on the tablecloth; don’t give it much importance otherwise the French might think you come from a famine-stricken country.

Mind Your Chopsticks in China and Japan


Okay as it is it was a Herculean task to grab a handful of noodles with chopsticks, there are some strict ground rules which if not followed can put you in a soup. Don’t do this with your chopsticks:

  1. Don’t put your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl. You might anger the dead. Actually, upright chopsticks are meant for the dead. The rice that is offered to them has the chopsticks standing at right angles.
  2. Don’t (read never ever!) cross your chopsticks.
  3. Don’t lick them (just like you don’t put the fork into the mouth, you don’t lick chopsticks. Unless the dish is super tasty and you are alone.)
  4. Don’t transfer food from your chopsticks to your friend’s. Though I am sure you won’t be able to manage it without dropping it mid-air, but if you can then don’t. That is how the remains of the cremated are passed amongst the family members during the funeral rite ceremony.

Over a Japanese dinner, if your slurp while eating your noodles, it is a matter of delight for the host. It means you are enjoying your food. But smart chap, don’t go a step ahead and burp heartily trying to prove you have had a good meal. They might just laugh at your gastronomical adventures after you have left. But….if you wish to impress your Chinese host, belch away!

Be a Sport in Nepal

If you are dining at someone’s house, you should ask for a second serving. This is an indirect compliment to the host’s cooking skills. Now this can be both good and bad. If you want to look polite and win hearts, you will have to ask for more even if your stomach is threatening to explode or your taste buds are ready to make you throw up.

The Indian Feast — WeAreFoodies

Oh you eat with your hands? Yes, because eating with feet would get a little uncomfortable, no?

We Indians love our food. There is such a large variety of cuisines in India that no single set of rules can apply. So, as a rule we don’t follow any rule. But there are certain dictums the elders tried to lay down some centuries ago. To follow or not to follow is your game.

    1. If you are a dinner guest at someone’s house, you just cannot get away with a single helping. They are bound to refill your plate again and again. We are the best of hosts, you see. So, try and fast for two days before you go to an Indian’s house for dinner.
    2. Eating with the right hand. Okay so this rule is based on some practical considerations the details of which you wouldn’t like to hear here.
    3. You are allowed to make a mess, overcrowd your plate (especially in shaadis), and talk heartily when you eat. And when you talk you must wholeheartedly compliment the cook. Otherwise people will say, “Yeh toh sirf khaane ke liye hi aaye the, bhookad!” (They came only to eat. What gluttons!)

And no matter what Oprah says, you can eat with your hands. Dip your fingers in the curry and lick them for all we care!

No Under-the-table Business in Germany and Russia

Hands on the table!

Now you’d be wondering why these two countries appear together here despite the fact that there’s hardly anything common in their food habits. The dining etiquette is not only different, it is exactly the opposite! So it might backfire if you plan to practise the same dining conventions everywhere.

In Russia, you keep your wrists on the table. It is considered impolite to place your hands in your lap (maybe to discourage under-the-table romance. Or other such under-the-table activities). But in Germany, you don’t do that. There you don’t crowd the table with your elbows.

Eating in Ethiopia

It’s about speed, pal. The Ethiopians are a frugal lot. Eating from individual plates is considered wasteful. So you get one big plate with all the food on it. Get, set, attack! The one who eats the fastest will obviously get the better share. No, that is not a practised convention. It’s just what more gluttonous people would do.

From Turkey, with love

This one needs special mention. If a Turkish native invites you to dinner, never refuse. No, that’s not the rule. The rule in Turkish culture is that whoever suggested dining outside (and invited the others) has to pay for everybody. And it is strictly followed.

Enjoy your food, while I go and look for some good-looking and good-natured Turkish friends.

P.S.- No chef, diner, cat, chicken, or fish should take offense at our take. It’s all in good humour. We know you are not that fussy and all you want is to eat.

Nishi Jain

Nishi Jain spent some precious years of her life studying English literature, editing novels, and writing newspaper articles. Then one day, as she was sitting under a tree with no branches, a rotten pancake fell on her head from the window above and she had her Newtonian moment. From then on, all she does is eat pancakes, write, and profess fake love to pastry chefs.

Nishi Jain – who has written posts on WAH Blog.