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Dining Customs of Different Cultures

Learn what different cultures find strange about one another's dining habits, and how to behave when dining in a foreign land.

Dining Customs of Different Cultures

Is It Time to Eat?

Many foreigners find the customs and terminology that accompany eating in America odd, disconcerting, or baffling. Why do some American executives like to conduct business at breakfast, whereas we often consider lunch as little more than an afterthought? We load our water glasses with ice. We drink denatured (decaffeinated) coffee. We eat strange things and at odd times. Consider the following:

  • The main meal of the day in other countries is taken at midday. In America the main meal comes at the end of the workday. We call the evening meal “dinner,” a word that signifies the midday meal in other English-speaking countries.
  • The evening meal in America is served, generally, within an hour either way of 7 P.M. Elsewhere it is generally later and generally lighter. In Spain supper commonly begins at 10 P.M.
  • The English have tea in the afternoon, usually around 4 P.M. This meal consists of tea, small sandwiches, and pastries. High tea is not a more elaborate version of tea. It is, in fact, an informal replacement for supper, which is eaten later in the evening.

In addition, brunch is considered a curious American invention in places where it is known at all. A foreign visitor will probably find its timing disconcerting.

Unfamiliar Foods

Here are some commonplace American foods that foreigners find unusual or, in some cases, repulsive.

  • Marshmallows
  • Corn on the cob, which many Europeans consider fit only for animals
  • Pumpkin pie (also pecan pie)
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Crawfish
  • Grits
  • Hot dogs

When traveling in other countries, some Americans may have the same reaction to foods like sea urchins in Korea, horse meat in Japan, toasted grasshoppers in Mexico, sea slugs in China, sheep's eyes in the Middle East, haggis (sheep's organs and entrails) in Scotland, or kidney pie in England.

Also, what many Americans think of as Mexican food and Chinese food would not be welcome—or even recognized!—in Mexico and China. (When Chinese Americans want to say someone is losing touch with his Chinese heritage, they may call him “a chop suey man.” Chop suey is a dish that Americans think is Chinese and Chinese think is American.)

Live and Learn

Many Americans would just as soon eat a rat's tail as a cooked snail. And some people who consider snails to be a delicacy are repelled by the very idea of eating those good old Yankee standbys of corn on the cob and pumpkin pie.

Here are some general rules of etiquette to follow when you are confronted with unfamiliar food in a foreign land:

  • If you don't know what it is, you might be better off not asking. Taste it. If you don't like it and are asked for your opinion, say something like “It has a very distinctive flavor.”
  • If you know what it is and don't want to try it, politely refuse. Or you can say something like “I know this is quite a delicacy, but I've tried it before and found it doesn't sit well with me.”
  • If you sense that a refusal would offend your host or fellow diners, cut it up and move it around on your dish so that it looks as if you are eating.
Faux Pas

What Americans call diapers are napkins in England. This could lead to some hilarious and/or embarrassing misunderstandings. When speaking to someone from the British Isles, refer to the linens you put on the table as serviettes.

Some cautionary notes:

  • It is particularly important to respect the dietary rules of Muslims. They do not eat the flesh of any animal that scavenges, including pigs, goats, some birds, and sea scavengers like lobster. Food may not be prepared using the products derived from these animals, such as oils. Muslims do not drink alcohol and avoid foods cooked with alcohol.
  • Do not point with your chopsticks or suck on them. Do not stick chopsticks upright in your rice. This placement is thought to bring bad luck.
  • In Europe you may expect salads to be served after, rather than before, the main dish.
  • Orthodox Jews do not eat pork or shellfish. Meat and fowl must be kosher, which means they must be ritually prepared.
  • In Europe and elsewhere, the main dish is served at the beginning of the meal, so don't think of it as an appetizer. Also be careful at formal Chinese banquets. These events consist of many more courses than Westerners expect. Don't fill up too early, or you'll be too full to eat some wonderful delicacies later in the meal.

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