Eat like a Local

Published 2012-09-20 10:13:37

Food © Goran Bogicevic - Fotolia.comMoving abroad can make something as simple as eating become a challenge. Different utensils, strange foods, a foreign language, and an entirely different standard of etiquette can be a minefield for new expats. And as eating is something we - as humans - kinda have to do, it is an unavoidable obstacle.

In our new series of "____ Like a Local", we provide tips to avoid the worst faux pas and an overview of standards around the world. (For more tips on fitting in, read Talk Like a Local, Tip Like a Local, Date like a Local, Stay Healthy like a Local, and Greet Like A Local).


The guide below refers to the established standards of an area. However, different countries within the regions and different people may interpret or ignore these rules entirely. Watch your hosts or other guests and follow their lead. While this guide should help you avoid embarrassment, what is most important in any situation is to try to be respectful and courteous. Good intentions can take care of all sort of "bad manners".


    General Rules:
  • Meals are commonly served on a low table with decorated pillows for the guests to sit on.
  • African hosts are known for their generosity. Always accept the cup of tea and/or coffee and expect frequent refills. You may not be able to leave with an empty plate and may need to accept a refill and leave food on the plate in order not to insult the host.
  • In some areas of Africa (especially in Muslim nations), it is not acceptable to eat with your left hand. Wash your hands before the meal. Many restaurants have sinks out in the open specifically for this purpose.
  • Men and women may be asked to dine separately.
  • No utensils may be offered in some countries. Use your hands, often with the help of a doughy starchy staple. (In Mali, this is toh, Cote D'Ivoire has FuFu, etc.)

As a primarily Muslim nation, pork and alcohol are not commonly served. In addition, eating with the left hand is discouraged. Also beware of Ramadan observations as eating (and other behaviors) are unacceptable during daylight hours. For more information on Ramadan, read Respecting Ramadan as an Expat or Traveler.

A unique custom in Ethiopia is gursha. It involves the people feeding each other with their bare hands. A host may scoop up meat, vegetables and sauces and feed the person sitting next to them.

Meals are often served from a communal bowl. Eat from the portion of the communal bowl or plate closest to you using your hand. Never put your hand into your mouth because you will use it again to touch the communal food. When drinking tea, the teapot is held high in the air so that as the tea is poured into the glass, a little ring of bubbles forms around the surface as proof of proper aeration.

South Africa
South Africa has been significantly westernized and there is a mix of western and African standards. Utensils are commonly used, but be aware that communal serving and eating with the hands may also be acceptable. You should still avoid using your left hand unless you are clearly eating something that requires two hands. The honored guest is usually served first, then the oldest male, then the rest of the men, then children, and finally women.


    General Rules:
  • Just about everywhere in Asia requires chopsticks for dining. Ask for help if you need it as most hosts will be happy to show you the correct way to handle your utensils.
  • Rest chopsticks on your plate or a chopstick rest when not using them. Never rest them in or across a rice bowl or upright in your rice.
  • Do not point with chopsticks, or wave them around, or pierce food with them.
  • Use the small end of a chopstick as your eating utensil, and the large end to serve others.
  • Tea is usually served with meals throughout Asia. If someone refills your teacup, tapping your fingers three times symbolizes appreciation.
  • While rice is a staple, it is not necessary to eat every grain in your bowl. In fact, if you eat everything in your rice bowl or on your plate, it may means you want more.
  • Age is revered, and in general you should not begin to eat or drink until the oldest man at the table has been served and begun.
  • Drinking etiquette often dictates you must never pour your own drink. If a beverage is less than half full, it needs refilling. If yours is less than half full, your neighbor is obliged to refill it. If he or she does not, do not refill it yourself, for this will cause your neighbor to lose face: instead, diplomatically indicate your need by pouring a little more drink into your neighbor's glass, even if it doesn't really need it.
  • In informal restaurants, you may be required to share a table. If so, do not force conversation; act as if you are seated at a private table.
  • Toothpicks are often used at the end of the meal. The best way to handle a toothpick is to use it while covering your mouth with the other hand.

Chinese chopsticks are usually round, as opposed to the more square-sided Japanese kind. Compliments are expected, so praise the food throughout. If you are the honored guest, you will be expected to make a toast, usually soon after the host does or at the end of the meal. An appropriate toast is to the health of the host and all those present, and to the prosperity of the business that brought you together.

Be aware of the dining restrictions of Muslims and Hindus as Islam prohibits the use of pork, and Hindus do not eat beef. When dining with Hindus, do not touch directly any food that is being served to others (especially between men and women). When dining with devout Muslims, it is especially important for women not to touch directly any food that is being served to men. The spoon is more important than the fork, so if you are right-handed, keep the spoon in your right hand, and put it down to switch to the fork if you need it. Never use your left hand for eating. At the end of the meal, it is considered unnecessary and in bad taste to thank the host or hostess for the meal; this is perceived as a "payment" for the meal, and as a guest, you should not do that.

Meals are usually served with a bowl of soup without a spoon. You should pick up the bowl with both hands to sip the soup, and use chopsticks to pick up any solid pieces that may be in the broth. Slurp is a sign of appreciation, but splattering is frowned upon. Also note that conversation is subdued.

If an older person offers you a drink, lift your glass to receive it with both hands. After receiving the pour with both hands, you should turn your head away and take a discreet sip. At traditional and family feasts, after the first glass is filled by your neighbor and then drained by you, South Koreans often refill their own glass then pass it to the person on their right. Then, after you drink, you refill the glass, and pass it again to the neighbor on your right, with everyone at the table doing the same thing. This is usually done during a series of toasts.

It is polite to wait to be asked before sitting for dinner, and to wait to be told where to sit, and to wait to be told when to start eating. You will always be offered more food. Leave a bit on your plate if you do not want more food. Chopsticks are only used to eat Chinese food. Otherwise, forks, spoons, and knives are used with Philippine and Western food. In some Philippine restaurants no utensils are used and fingers are employed. Known as "banana-leaf" food, these vegetarian or meat curries are served with rice and sauce on a large banana leaf. Avoid using your left hand for any kind of eating, especially if you are eating directly with your hands and not using utensils.

Chopsticks are not traditionally used in Thailand. Spoons and forks are used (never knives). If you need to cut things, use the side of your spoon first, then move on to the fork if necessary. If you are right-handed, keep the spoon in your right hand and the fork in your left. Don't put food in your mouth with a fork. When eating a dish with cooked rice, use your fork only to push food onto your spoon. A few exceptions: Some northern and northeastern Thai dishes are typically eaten with the hands. These usually consist of glutinous or "sticky" rice.


    General Rules:
  • Europeans eat using the "Continental style". The fork is held in the left hand and the knife in the right. You then eat with your fork still in your left hand. The fork and knife should remain in your hands at all times.
  • With the utensils, start from the outside and work your way in, course by course.
  • Dining tends to be formal with elbows off the table and both hands above the table at all times.
  • Eating everything on the plate shows that you have enjoyed your meal.
  • If a group is buying drinks, it is common in some countries to have person buy each round.
  • In informal restaurants, you may be required to share a table. If so, do not force conversation; act as if you are seated at a private table.
  • Water is not automatically served at the table. Bottled water is usually ordered, but you can make a special request for table water or tap water. You may need to pay for a beverage to receive water.
  • Meals can occur quite late in some countries with lunches around 14:00 and dinners around 22:00. Restaurants may not be open in the off times so plan accordingly.
  • Dining is often a drawn-out, lingering event. The focus can be equally to socialize and eat.

The knife above the plate is used for butter; otherwise, always start from the outside and work your way in, course by course. The English do not switch knives and forks. The knife remains in the right hand, and the fork remains in the left. When the meal is finished, the knife and fork are laid parallel to each other across the right side of the plate. The fork is often held tines down, so that food is scooped up onto the backside of the fork. At the table, pass all dishes to your left.

Meals may begin with the host saying "Bon appetit"! Meals also have an order:

  • Hors D'oeuvres - Appetizers served first
  • Fish Course - Comes between the starter and the meat course. This will be followed by a small dish of lemon or lime sorbet to cleanse the palate and refresh the senses.
  • Main Course - Meat or poultry dish accompanied by a vegetable garnish
  • Salad Course - Simple greens tossed with vinaigrette as a means of cleansing the palate and aiding digestion
  • Cheese Plate - Selection of cheese served on a wooden board with assorted cut fruit. This signals the end of a casual, family-style meal.
  • Sweet Dessert Course - Special occasions call for a treat

Meals may not consist of all of these courses, but this is the order for a complete French meal. Bread is eaten with the meal, not as an appetizer. The knife above your plate is for bread and butter (or it may be a small knife laid by the side of the main plate). The fork and spoon above your plate are for dessert. There will be separate glasses provided at your setting for water, white and red wine, and champagne. Diners don't order their entire meal at once. Instead, the waiter will often go around taking appetizer orders first, then go around again for the main course. Only after all food orders have been taken will drinks be ordered.

Arrive on time as punctuality indicates proper planning - no later than 15 minutes later than invited without telephoning to explain you have been detained. Knives are usually only used when absolutely necessary. Even the lettuce in a salad is not cut. It is folded using your knife and fork. Utensils are used in most meals and even fries (and sometimes burgers) are eaten with a fork. Rolls, however, should be broken apart by hand. While toasting, never break eye contact. If you are not looking at the person you are toasting, it is said to bring 7 years bad sex!

As one moves from north to south through Italy, the food shifts from rice-based dishes (risottos) to wheat-based dishes (noodles and pastas, pizzas and gnocchis).Eating is an event in Italy and there is a right way to do things.

    Formal Italian meals usually follow the order:
  • antipasto (appetizers, such as prosciutto, pates, and fruit)
  • soup
  • pasta
  • main dish
  • salad
  • cheese
  • dessert
  • fruit
  • espresso and after-dinner drinks

Meal may not include every course, but meals should generally be in this order. Pasta should be eaten with a fork using the sides of the bowl or plate against which to twirl the pasta onto the fork. Do not slurp the pasta strands. Place the entire forkful into your mouth at once. A cappuccino should only be ordered before noon as some Italians say that a late-day cappuccino upsets the stomach, or that it's a replacement for a meal (it's common to have a cappuccino for breakfast). On the other hand, a shot of espresso can be drunk at anytime.

Never turn down the national drink of vodka. It is also uncommon to mix it or drink it with ice. Bread is usually offered after each drink. If you really cannot drink, you should be prepared with a good excuse, like doctor's orders. While toasting, never break eye contact.

It is acceptable (and even common) to be late by 30 minutes in southern Spain and 15 minutes in northern Spain for social meetings. The fork and spoon above your plate are for dessert. There are usually separate glasses for water and white and red wine. Bread is placed on the rim of your main plate or on the table by your plate. It can be used as a utensil to push food gently onto the fork. However, it is not acceptable to dip the bread in the soup. Try not to waste food. It is better to decline food rather than leave it on your plate.

Middle East

    General Rules:
  • Most countries in the Middle East are highly identified with Islam so these standards must be observed. This includes the prohibited items of pork and alcohol. Alcohol may be occasionally offered, but drunkenness is never acceptable.
  • It is fairly common to have separate seating areas for women with families and single men.
  • Arabs are known for their hospitality.
  • Diners are expected to take several helpings, so pace yourself. Also realize that your plate will be automatically refilled unless you leave a little food on the plate.
  • Dining is usually on the floor with seating on cushions.
  • Food is generally served communally and everyone will share from the same dish.
  • If you eat with your fingers, use only your right hand to eat. Wash your hands before beginning a meal.
  • Guests may be honored with prime choice of meats such as the head or eyes.
  • Meals are a social affair. Conversations are animated and loud.
  • Respect is shown through the order of serving. The head of the family or honored guest is served first.

Guests are supposed to eat first, eat the most, and should be seated furthest from the door. Guests who accidentally drop their bread should pick it up, kiss it, and raise it to their foreheads before setting it back down.

Food and dining in Israel is both middle eastern and western. Western utensils are used throughout Israel and dining is done the Continental way. In Orthodox homes and establishments, men and women may dine in separate areas, or at different times. Religious Israelis have strict dietary laws. Always assume, unless told otherwise, that your hosts observe kosher eating. Pork and shellfish is prohibited, as is the mixing of milk and meat products. After eating meat, don't ask for butter for your bread or cream for your coffee.

Dining is done with forks and spoons and knives, Western style. Guests are served first, then the oldest man, then the rest of the men, then children, and finally women. Tea is drunk throughout the day in a ritual fashion in a little curved glass. Milk is never added, but water is used to dilute the tea which often still steeping when served. The coffee served here is also particular to the country. It is very strong, with grounds still present in the bottom of the cup. It is served with sugar, but milk is not added. This drinks are offered everywhere in a gesture of hospitality. Cups are refilled by your neighbor; if it is less than half full, it needs refilling.

The cities of the UAE are extremely cosmopolitan. Western standards are generally adhered to and many of the residents are actually expats. Do not offer alcohol to an Arab unless you are sure this will not offend them. While dining, keep your feet firmly placed on the ground and do not cross your legs. Showing the soles of your feet implies you think the other person is beneath you. Beware that Ramadan observation makes eating (and other behaviors) unacceptable during daylight hours.

North America

    General Rules:
  • Dining in North American is generally quite casual. Where there are extensive etiquette rules, most people only adhere to the basics unless there is a special occasion. Basics include keeping your elbows off the table, avoiding burping, farting, or talking with food in your mouth, and say please and thank you.
  • Cutlery usually includes a fork, spoon, and knife. To use the knife, the fork is switched to the left hand. To continue eating, the fork is switched back to the right hand. However, eating in the Continental manner will not offend anyone. Many foods are eaten by hand.
  • Begin eating when everyone is served and the host has started eating.
  • Foods or drinks can be refused without causing offense.
  • Dining can take place anytime during the day.
  • Your napkin should be placed on your lap immediately after you are seated and kept on your lap during the meal.

Many foods are eaten with your hands and Mexicans do not switch knives and forks. Foods like tacos should never be eaten with a fork and knife. Using utensils is seen as snobby and is not the best way to enjoy Mexican food. Lunch is the main meal of the day and you should always plan to spend at least two hours enjoying this meal. It is rude to rush off immediately afterwards. If you are at a restaurant, it is customary to allow your host to order for you. Excess drinking is frowned upon in Mexico, especially when it's a women.

Americans conduct business over breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some socializing may start off the meal, but often the conversation will revolve around business. The guest of honor is often toasted and should reciprocate by giving a toast of thanks. If offered a second helping of food, feel free to take what you like. American hosts like to see people enjoying their food. Americans tend to eat more quickly than people from other countries and meals are usually a fast paced affair. Informal gatherings at homes are frequent occurrences. Laid back parties like potlucks involve everyone bring a dish to share. On the other hand, it would be highly unusual to be asked to share a table at most restaurants.


    General Rules
  • Dining etiquette calls for utensils with no need to switch knives and forks between hands while eating. The knife remains in the right hand, and the fork remains in the left. Pass all dishes and serving accessories at the table to your left.
  • Politeness is appreciated, so keep your elbows off the table and use the words "please" and "thank you".
  • Offer to help with meal preparation and clean-up when being entertained in a home.
  • Aussies are known for their skill on the "barbie" (BBQ). These informal affairs often have guests bring their own wine or beer, or even their choice of meat or side dish.
  • If you share a pint with a group Australians, realize that rounds are often purchased by each member of the group.

South America

    General Rules:
  • European-style table manners are usually observed.
  • Business lunches are common throughout Latin America. They are generally long, from 13:00 or 14:00 p.m. til 15:00 or 16:00.
  • Dinner is a social event, and can occur very late. Dinner may not begin until 22:00 or 23:00.
  • Be polite by keeping your elbows off the table and avoid talking with food in your mouth.
  • It is common to arrive 15 to 30 minutes late for a meal.
  • Hosts will often say "buen provecho" as an invitation to start eating.
  • It would be highly unusual to be asked to share a table in any situation.
  • Never leave immediately after dinner. You should stay and socialize.

Argentina is known world-wide for many of it's food products. To cut meat, hold the meat with your fork in your left hand, and cut the meat with the knife in your right hand through the tines of the fork. There are also important rules regarding the pouring of wine. One should never pour a glass backwards into a glass or use your left hand as this means you very dislike the person you are serving. The Argentinean tea, mate, is a traditional beverage, which is served in a gourd with a silver straw (bombilla). The etiquette for drinking mate is to take a sip and pass the gourd to your neighbor; they do the same in turn.

Dining s fairly formal in Chile. Utensils are used almost exclusively and even fries should be eaten with a fork. Women are shown respect by being sat and served before men.

It is considered bad form to leave the dinner party, or the table, at any time. Allow more senior members of your party to enter rooms ahead of you. Men should move aside to allow women to enter the room ahead of them.

Forks and knives should be used for everything eaten at a table. Don't lick your fingers or use toothpicks — both are considered vulgar. Water is not automatically served at the table. If you want water, ask for it. At a churrascaria (Brazilian steakhouse) servers circle with cuts of meat and diners use tokens to place an order. If a server comes out with something you want, make sure your token has the green side up. If you don't want any more, flip it with the red side up.

Tips from Expats

@Wendy_Hollands at Le Franco Phoney
Only drink white wine with fondue Savoyarde or Raclette. Also, scrape Raclette evenly, including crusts, and eat crusts! Only cut wedges from Reblochon cheese from the centre (and eat crust). Wedges from Tomme too, but don't eat crust. Tip for Aussies in France: don't ask for butter and jam on your croissant. Locals think you're mental. Pastry already tasty!

ThirdCulture Children
In La Paz, Bolivia, you ought to ask for a serving of QUINUA (grains) - super healthy, rich in proteins, and you can mix it with soup, sprinkle over meat, mix with your stew... the possibilities are endless! Ah! And don't forget to ask for the hot tomatillo salsa... hummm!

@nw2berlin at Back to Berlin...and Beyond!
Don't put your bratwurst in the bun in Germany. It is meant to be eaten alone with mustard with a roll or fries on the side.

@babspinfrance at Footprints in the Sand
Coffee is always served at the very end of the meal and never with dessert. Crepes are always sweet, the savoury ones are called galettes.

Expat Foodies

One of the best ways to figure out how to eat like a local is by reading expat blogs. Many of them have been there, ate that. Let there experiences help guide you in how to cook, eat, and act locally.

  • A Goddess in the Kitchen - A middle aged feminist foodie becomes a trophy wife and moves to Lae, Papua New Guinea.
  • An Expat Cooks - I write about food I cook, food I eat, life in Qatar, life in general.
  • Dinners & Dreams - A Moroccan expat living in Florida with my husband and daughter. A teacher by profession, I also like to cook, bake, write and exercise.
  • Eating Like a Brazilian - I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri USA. Brazilian Recipes, cooking techniques, and cooking terms presented in an easy to follow guide, in English, using pictures, videos, and other helpful sources to make it possible to create delicious Brazilian food in your own home, using easy to find ingredients.
  • Expat Cucina - Dani, born in the beautiful country of ITALY! It all started at the age of 18 when I started studying Chinese in college. After completing my Masters, I moved to Beijing.
  • Glocal Girl - California native Jeanelle Rabadam blogs about her ex-pat adventures as a graduate student in Spain and traveling Europe.
  • Jessica Lives Here - I am a displaced Torontonian now in Liège, Belgium. A former boss of the office-variety, who gave it all up for the pleasure of making delicious pastries, candies and MOST importantly: chocolates.
  • La Belle Aurore - La Belle Aurore is a French Canadian writer and Blogger currently living in Shenyang, China. La Belle Aurore is currently keeping a 'cooking with instinct and living with passion' blog.
  • Cooking from Alaska to Belize - The story of a chef in Hopkins, Belize.
  • Letters from Frau Dietz - The usual expat fare of new experiences and linguistic nightmares... plus stories of my very enthusiastic exploration of German cuisine!
  • No Onion Please - Sharing bits of onionless life brutally enforced by my boyfriend. Yup, welcome to yet another food & travel blog.
  • The Culinary Chase - A food blog by a peripatetic Canadian living in Bangkok discovering food from around the world.
  • The Missing Flavor - Brazilian journalist, historian and geographer expat living in Norway
  • The Rambling Epicure - From Kentucky; I work as a freelance food writer and translator, cooking instructor, recipe developer and tester, as well as editor of the daily international food chronicle The Rambling Epicure. I studied wine in France and Switzerland and now work as a freelancer.

More blogs can be found in BlogExpat Directory under the category of Gourmet. Find expat dishes, cooking tips, and food articles on our Pinterest board: Expat Food & Drink. Don't know how to show your appreciation after a good meal? Read our article on The Art of Tipping.

For more on how to  "___ Like a Local"

Talk Like a Local


Author: EasyExpat
Community Manager

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