Don't Make These 17 Food Etiquette Mistakes When Traveling Abroad

Don't Make These 17 Food Etiquette Mistakes When Traveling Abroad

Avoid an international faux pas.

By Aly Walansky

Every country has its food etiquette you really need to know before sitting down for a meal with locals. Just as New Yorkers may judge you for eating pizza with a fork — gasp — in India, the Middle East, or Asia, you are expected to know to use your right hand to eat and pass items. (Sorry lefties!) And if you order a cappuccino in Italy after lunch, you're just asking for an eye roll. Here's some other important food rules to remember for future jet-setting adventures.

1. Russia

In Russia, people are expected to drink vodka straight and pure. “Don’t add ice or mixers or you dirty the purity,” says Sharon Schweitzer, international protocol expert and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. That is unless you add beer — and then this formidable beverage is known as yorsh. Always accept an offer of vodka, which is a sign of trust and friendship. It’s a good idea to accept even if it’s 8 a.m., because declining is a faux pas.

2. Asia

In Asia, avoid pointing at anyone with your chopsticks because it is viewed as an insult. When accepting a drink, always use both hands, and avoid placing your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice as this is associated with funerals. Instead, chopsticks are placed together right in front of you, parallel to the edge of the table. Also, "It is rude to refill your own glass or cup. Refill your neighbor’s glass and wait for her to reciprocate," says Schweitzer. In Thailand, don’t put food in your mouth with a fork. Instead, use the fork to put food on the spoon and then place the spoon in your mouth. Some Thai dishes are eaten with the hands; chopsticks are considered tacky.

3. Middle East

“In the Middle East, if you drop bread on the ground, pick it up, kiss it, raise it to your forehead and put it back on your plate,” says Schweitzer. This shows respect for the food and the hard work that went into making it. When drinking tea or coffee with the Bedouins, shake your cup when finished, so they don’t continue pouring more.

4. India

In India, food is considered contaminated once it touches your plate, so don’t offer anyone a taste, even your spouse. "Be sure to finish all of your meal, because wasting food is seen as disrespectful. Wash your hands both before and after eating, paying close attention to the fingernails. Licking your fingers during the meal shows the host how much you enjoyed the food," says Schweitzer. "Don't say thank you to your host at the meal’s end; it's considered a form of payment. Reciprocate by inviting her to dinner."

5. Mexico

In Mexico, eat a taco with your hands. “Otherwise, you look snobby eating with a knife and fork. Would you eat a cheeseburger with a fork and knife?" asks Schweitzer.

6. Brazil

In Brazil, play your tokens wisely: At Brazilian steakhouses (churrascarias) dining room servers circulate with cuts of meat, and diners use tokens to place orders. “A token with the red side up means no more. Green side up orders more, so watch closely,” says Schweitzer.

7. Chile

In Chile, use utensils for all meals as a way to identify with European culture, per local preference. “Don’t use your hands to eat food — [even] French fries or pizza — because it’s considered ill-mannered,” says Schweitzer. In Chile, helping yourself to a second portion is offensive. It’s important to wait for the host to offer it.

8. U.K.

In the U.K., tilt your soup bowl away from you. In Britain, always pass the port to the left. “Many say that it’s a Navy tradition, associated with the ship’s port side on the left when facing the helm. Passing to the right is a gaffe," Schweitzer says. "If someone fails to pass, ask, 'Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?' If they reply 'no,' say, 'He was a great guy, but he always forgot to pass the port,'" says Schweitzer.

9. France

In France, the bread is placed on the table, and not on a bread plate. “It is used to help place food on the fork. Knife and fork is as bread and fork,” says Schweitzer. Bread is not eaten as an appetizer. It is consumed with the meal, or afterward with cheese. The well-mannered don’t cut their salads with a fork. Instead, fold the lettuce leaves onto your fork. Never split the bill as it's seen as the height of unsophistication. Pay the bill in full — or allow someone else to do so.

10. Greece

“Before you drink anything, with the exception of coffee, you must say 'yia sou,' 'yia mas,' or 'viva,'' which are all different variations of 'to your or our health' in the native Greek language,” says consulting chef and Greek native Diane Kochilas of Boston-based restaurant Committee. It is considered impolite for a waiter or waitress to take your plate away as soon as your finish you meal. “People like to linger after their meals to converse and enjoy the experience to the fullest,” says Kochilas. It’s very impolite not to offer a guest something to drink and a little snack when someone is in your home. "Even in professional situations, like at an office, it is common practice to offer something," she says. As well, refusing a plate of food is considered bad manners. If the host offers you a plate of food, it’s extremely impolite to say no even if you’re not hungry or do not like the food that is offered. It’s usually standard for several people to share plates.

11. Italy

In Italy, don’t ask for extra cheese, especially parmesan, unless it’s offered. “Many Italian dishes made with pecorino won’t taste good with different cheeses. Asking for cheese on seafood is insulting,” says Schweitzer. If it’s not offered, don’t ask. Drink a cappuccino before noon. After 3:00 p.m., drink an espresso. “Many Italians drink a breakfast cappuccino as a meal. Doing otherwise brands you a tourist,” says Schweitzer.

12. Germany

In Germany, don’t cut potatoes with a knife as it indicates they aren’t done. “Instead, smash them with your fork, which provides for better gravy coverage,” says Schweitzer.

13. Portugal

In Portugal, avoid asking for salt and pepper if they are not on the table. “It is an insult to the chef’s flavoring talents,” says Schweitzer. Instead: Enjoy the meal without adding seasoning. In Portugal, it is very bad manners to pour your own wine in a restaurant. “Even if the service is slow and the bottle is two inches from you,” says journalist Lena Katz.

14. Fiji

"In Fiji, kava drinking ceremonies are an important part of the friendly and hospitable culture, and often a way for locals to welcome travelers and build camaraderie. But the ceremony comes with certain etiquette guests must follow — when offered a 'high tide' (a full cup) or 'low tide' (a half cup), you must clap once, say 'Bula!' (the Fijian word for hello), and then ideally drink the cup in its entirety in one gulp, followed by three more claps," says Jessica Kandler of Namale Resort & Spa. "Fijians believe Kava drinking ceremonies to be a social unifier, so once you've got the etiquette down, it's a truly memorable cultural experience that leads to new friendships and connects you to the land and people of Fiji."

15. Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, individual plates are considered to be wasteful. Food is shared from a single plate, without utensils, and eaten using hands. “In Ethiopia, the tradition of gursha is practiced where the people hand feed each other as a gesture of hospitality to build trust and social bonds between those sharing the food,” says Schweitzer.

16. Tanzania

In Tanzania, arrive 15 to 30 minutes late and you are timely for a designated meetup for a meal. Arriving at the exact time is rude.

17. Hawaii

Hawaii is of course part of America, but has its own distinct cultural rules: Poi, a traditional part of Hawaiian cuisine, should be eaten with two fingers on the spoon, scooped up and brought directly to mouth. Place your index and middle finger in poi — and don't go past your first knuckle. “Whatever sticks to your fingers is what you eat. Also, you should never argue or speak in anger with poi on the table,” says Miko Sloan, Hawaiian cultural expert at Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island. Also, in Hawaiian culture, it is strongly seen as disrespectful not to finish your plate — if you put it on your plate, you should eat it.

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