A Beginner’s Guide to Table Etiquette in Asia


My boyfriend is BBC (British-born Chinese) and his parents are from Hong Kong. And it seems without fail that every time we eat together, I unwittingly make some mistake or another. So here I’ve compiled a list of 15 things to know to not embarrass yourself or your hosts. Most of these hold true for the majority of SE Asia, but I’ll get specific where necessary.

1. When invited over for dinner, skip the wine or flowers and bring fruit. Your hosts will probably use these for dessert, so try to find out what they like beforehand.

2. Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically into your rice bowl. This is especially bad in Japan, since it resembles a ceremony performed at funerals, but it’s a faux pas across the board in chopsticks-using countries.

3. Most meals in Asia are served on large plates, from which everyone serves themselves. In Korea, people only start eating after the eldest has started. I usually just wait until everyone else has started just to be safe.

4. In several parts of Southeast Asia, you should leave a bit of rice on your plate at the end of your meal, so as not to look greedy. In China, you need to finish every last grain. Elders will use chopsticks to shovel the rice in their mouths. Technically, young people should not do this, but plenty do. Etiquette rules here are a bit more lax than in Japan.

5. Also on the topic of shared plates, don’t go in for a piece of fish if someone is currently getting a piece of fish. One at a time! And it’s not a smorgasbord; don’t take huge portions back to your rice bowl. One piece at a time!

6. In the Muslim world, eating with your left hand is a world of no. I’m left-handed and I never use my right hand for anything, but this one will get you the most (and worst) looks and whispers, so I just have to force myself to do it.

7. When eating sticky rice in Thailand, don’t double dip and, again, only take as much from the shared pot as you need for that bite. Cover the bowl when you’ve got your piece.

8. Just leave any bones and non-edibles (kaffir leaves, shells etc.) on the edge of your plate or on the table.

9. Some “finger foods” require a utensil in Asia, like chicken wings. Just stab one through the meat for balance and you should be fine.

10. In parts of India, Indonesia and Malaysia, your hands will be your utensils. This doesn’t mean your whole hand; rather, your fingertips.

11. You can try to say no to more food or drink, but it probably won’t work. Always be polite and accept it – you most likely won’t have a choice.

12. Beer is often served with ice, and “beer girls” at restaurants will refill your glass after every sip, so be careful to watch your intoxication level. And it would be wise to bring your own cold water. Many believe that ice water interferes with digestive juices, so beverages are room temp or hotter, and are usually only drunk after the meal.

13. In Thailand, leave the coins as a tip, otherwise you’ll be considered greedy. In China, tipping is not really a thing, and gratuity is often added on. Leaving the change is usually good protocol.

14. If you’re going to a dim sum place, bring a sweater. They’re freezing!

15. Toilet paper and Kleenex are used as napkins, and you should use them to wipe down the utensils before eating. Bringing your own is a necessity for Asia.

Any other tips for being a good guest/customer?


About Author

Maureen always knew she wanted to travel. In college, she studied and traveled through the Caribbean and Central America, and the first time she fell in love was with Mexico City. After graduating, she spent several years teaching EFL in Europe, the Americas and Southeast Asia and traveling in every spare moment. She's currently living in Hong Kong, and getting lost while traveling is her main hobby.

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