A while back, I took an introductory Thai cooking class with a friend who wanted to immerse herself in the Asian kitchen. The instructor served sticky rice with the dishes each of us had prepared. I instinctively grabbed a dollop of rice (with my right hand), rolled it into a compact ball, and dipped it into a plate of green papaya salad. My classmates eyed me with curiosity. What in the world was I doing?
This got me thinking about the etiquette of Asian eating. Through the years, I’ve fielded many questions from first-time travelers about propriety at the Asian table. There’s a lot to remember—so many mores that vary from region to region, dish to dish. Many Asians are quite forgiving when it comes to culinary faux pas among foreign eaters. Still, it’s good to know the ground rules when traveling (or when you want to wow the proprietor of that great new Thai restaurant up the road). Here’s a primer that should get you started:
• Shoes. As in many Asian homes, some restaurateurs prefer customers to leave their shoes in the dirty outdoors. If you find a collection of flip-flops at the door, take the hint.
• Pillows. Enter a traditional Thai dining room and you might discover low-lying tables surrounded by cushions and triangular pillows. Sit on the cushions, lounge against the pillows and relax—that’s the whole point.
•T.P. Many Southeast Asian restaurants and street stalls keep a roll of toilet paper on the table. That’s your napkin. It’s also perfectly acceptable—even expected—for customers to use that tissue to wipe their dishes and utensils before eating.
• Fork, spoon, chopsticks. Use chopsticks for Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese meals, as well as noodle soups throughout Southeast Asia. Many people are surprised to learn that Thai food is eaten with a fork and spoon. Use the fork to push food onto the spoon; the spoon is the only utensil that goes into the mouth. Make as little contact between mouth and spoon as possible. Thai women are particularly delicate diners with none of the slurping, smacking or chomping commonly practiced by other Asian eaters.
• Hand. The traditional utensil throughout much of India, Malaysia and Indonesia. As a tourist, you will most likely be given a fork and spoon (it’s OK to ask for them). But if you want to go local, first wash your hands at the faucet near the restaurant entrance. Use only the right hand. Never, ever, ever use the left, which is reserved for dirty jobs. Mix rice with everything else on the plate (or banana leaf). Hold your head close to the table and pop little bits of food into your mouth using your fingertips. This requires a fair bit of skill in order to eat without making a mess. Locals say it’s a far more sensual experience to eat with the hand.
• Water. Many Southeast Asian restaurants and stalls (especially in Thailand) keep a pitcher of drinking water on each table. It’s clean and safe to drink. In theory.
• Slurping. It’s fine to slurp your soups and noodles—especially in Japan, where you can drink broth directly from the bowl. The more you slurp, the more enjoyable the meal. Eating is a noisy experience in much of Asia.
• Bones. Don’t be deterred by a pile of tissue and chicken bones beneath your restaurant table (especially in Cambodia). Many customers toss their refuse on the floor or into a small plastic basket beneath the table. It all gets swept later in the day. A floor covered in bones doesn’t denote an unhygienic eatery—usually it just means the place is popular.
• Balls. In northern Thailand and Laos, use the right hand to roll sticky rice into a small ball and dip it into accompanying dishes. Don’t double dip. The rice is usually served in a basket, either individually sized or large enough for the table to share. When you are finished, place the cover back on the basket.
• Beer. Many bars and restaurants employ waitresses or “beer girls” to fill your glass as soon as you take a sip. The glass never appears empty, and you quickly get drunk. However, some of the intoxicating effects are diluted by the insertion of ice—a popular additive to Asian beer.
• Straws. They are served with just about any cold drink in Southeast Asia. You are not expected to touch lips to glass in public.
• Fish. In Thailand, never flip a whole fish after eating through one side. Carefully remove the bones and continue eating from the same side (superstition says flipping the fish will cause fishermen to flip their boats).
• Chunks. Leave large lemongrass stalks, lime leaves and galangal hunks behind in your bowl. They are not meant to be eaten. (If kaffir lime leaves are shredded, eat them.)
• Coffee & tea. In many parts of Southeast Asia, super-strong coffee is brewed through a bag and served with condensed milk and/or sugar. Tea is offered as a chaser. Drink the thick coffee, then cleanse the mouth with tea.
• Chai. Indian street stalls serve sweet, milky tea in tiny plastic or terracotta cups. Toss plastic in a nearby garbage bin (or heap); toss terracotta into the street, where it is crushed and ground into the road surface. Really.
• Ordering more. Throughout Asia, especially at street stalls, it’s acceptable to ask for more curry, broth or meatballs. Price may be adjusted appropriately. In many Indian restaurants, a waiter will come around with buckets of curry to replenish your plate.
• Ordering ahead. Sri Lankan and Indian restaurants routinely make everything—every intricate curry—by hand, and they require advance ordering (sometimes half a day or more.) Expect this. Plan accordingly. Order your dinner with breakfast; order your breakfast the night before.
• Sharing. Food is served family-style across much of Asia, even in the finest restaurants. Dig in. Share. And keep in mind that a good host will order a variety of dishes for the whole table, with the overall effect being a balance in flavor and texture.
• Paying. You must ask for the bill at most Asian restaurants. Enjoy the opportunity to linger.
• Tipping. It’s not customary to tip in much of Southeast Asia, particularly in casual restaurants or street stalls. But if you’d like to leave a little something, consider the price of the server’s ride home. Tips are always appreciated and often expected in high-end establishments.
This article originally appeared on The Faster Times on 07.15.2010