Let’s Talk Food: Manners at the table

Knowing and understanding manners are important to know, but there are different rules in different countries. So when we are able to travel abroad again, let’s make sure we know what we can and cannot do at the table.

In Thailand, forks and spoons were not introduced until the 19th century by King Rama IV. Prior to that, hands were used. However, today, when you go to Thailand, these are rules of etiquette: Hold the spoon in your right hand, fork in your left and use the fork to push food onto the spoon and put the spoon in the mouth.

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Place the spoon and fork together on your finished plate at the 6:30 position to show that you are done.

Chopsticks are used only to eat noodles. Do not ask for them for other foods. Sharing food is very acceptable in most Thai meals. So if your host starts ordering food and a large bowl of jasmine rice comes to the table, know that you will be sharing a meal. It is OK to tell the host what your likes are.

Use the serving spoon provided to serve food and only take a little, don’t pile it up! A good guide is no more than a few bites on your plate as you need to finish everything on your plate. Take food from the side of the serving place and not from the center.

Eat slowly as mealtime is a time for conversation with friends and families and eat as quietly as possible. Do not chew too loudly or make sounds when eating.

If you are in Portugal, do not ask for salt and pepper. The chef may take it as an insult. Portuguese table manners are quite formal so remain standing until asked to sit down. Do not eat until the host starts eating and do not talk about business. Do not rest your elbows on the table. All food is eaten with a fork, even fruit and cheese and when done eating, cross your knife and fork on your plate with the fork over the knife, and leave some food on your plate.

This custom of leaving food on the plate when you are done eating is also correct in China. This signals to the hosts that they gave you too much food. Do not eat until the eldest on the table starts to eat and do not burrow your chopsticks into the food. This is like “digging for treasures” and is considered bad manners. Chopstick etiquette is important to the Chinese as it is for the Japanese. Sticking your chopsticks vertically into your food, especially into your rice, is very bad as it is like the joss sticks of incense at a funeral. Do not wave your chopsticks around or play with them.

In Japan, chopsticks are revered as they are considered eating utensils so there are many etiquette rules. You do not play with them or rub them together, which means never rubbing waribashi or disposable chopsticks together. Avoid pointing your chopsticks at someone while talking, do not wave your chopsticks around over food on the table, do not point your chopsticks at the dishes on the table, do not suck sauces off your chopsticks, and do not lift food by stabbing it with your chopsticks. And by the way, in Japan, good service is considered standard so giving tips is considered an insult to the servers. I have a feeling though that the younger generation would feel differently about receiving a tip and would probably be happy to get one.

In Germany it is traditional to clink beer glasses but not in Hungary, where there is a legend of the Austrians doing just that, after defeating the Hungarians in the 1849 War of Independence. After that there was an informal ban of clinking.

In Russia, you do not put your hands on your lap but must keep them on the table to be visible throughout the meal. Sounds like a good start to a spy story.

If you ever go to Ethiopia, dinner will not be served on individual plates but instead are served family style as all those extra dishes are seen as wasteful to them. Can you imagine if Ethiopians ever went to Kyoto and ate a kaiseki meal, with nine to eleven small plates? They certainly would think it was very wasteful! When I had a kaiseki meal in Kyoto, I was thinking about the poor dishwasher, having to wash all those small dishes!

What about here? What are good manners? When I taught kids cooking classes, our first class was always about manners. I told the students about an experience one of my sons had when he and his boss made a sales call. His boss had no manners and embarrassed my son. I never would like any of my students to be in that situation. I always asked them. “What famous person would you want you like to have dinner with and if you were at the table, would you know your manners and not embarrass yourself?”

Napkin etiquette: napkins on the lap; do not use it to wipe the flatware, even if you see spots on them; never use your napkin to blow your nose; and excuse yourself from the table and loosely fold your napkin onto the table.

Parts of your body that should never be seen: elbows off the table; arms should be used to talk; and legs should be under the table and not on the chair.

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Are we ready or are we going to forget our manners because we all have cabin fever?

Email Audrey Wilson at audreywilson808@gmail.com.

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