Eating in Asia is one of the wildest, most satisfying parts about traveling in this region. The foods are flavorful, healthy, exotic and exciting, and in terms of variety, they span a massive spectrum. Knowing what to expect from Asian cuisine can be tricky, though. Even if you’ve traveled through several Asian countries before, every region differs significantly in terms of the dining customs, dishes and eating etiquette.
It’s important to note that history plays an important role in the similarities between foods across Asian nations. Most notably, ingredients and agricultural products, as well as traditional cooking techniques, spread through colonization. Asia, being the largest and most populous continent, is home to many cultures, many of which have their own characteristic cuisines.
The Dining Experience and Etiquette in Asia
Family-style meals, where dishes are served and shared, is the most popular way of enjoying food across Asia. When it comes to dining here, age is more than a number. Expect the eldest at the table to be served first, and remember that it’s polite for that person to begin eating first. Always follow his or her lead.
The following are just a handful of dining customs you’ll encounter in various Asian nations:
Cambodia’s cuisine is spectacular and widely varied. While you’re enjoying this cornucopia, don’t hesitate to express your enjoyment verbally. No one will look at you disapprovingly if you indulge in a slurp or two. If you’re dining with a large group, seniority matters. The oldest diner should be seated first and will generally be the first to commence eating. When looking down at the table, you might notice a few different things. Place settings will typically come with forks, spoons and chopsticks, but knives are usually absent. Avoid putting a fork directly in your mouth. Instead, use that fork to guide food onto your spoon or between your chopsticks. You can also expect more than you ordered to arrive at the table. Try a little bit of everything or nothing at all; you’ll only be charged for the extras you decide to taste.
Vietnamese meals are served family style (shared communally) and are full of fresh ingredients. Be ready to try lots of different dishes while enjoying lively conversation. You’ll likely be eating with chopsticks and a spoon. If you aren’t confident in your chopstick skills, simply ask the server for a fork.
While it’s sometimes considered rude to put both elbows on the table in Western society, it’s perfectly acceptable at a Vietnamese dining table. With both elbows on the table, you’re able to comfortably hold a rice bowl and chopsticks at the same time. It’s commonplace to bring the bowl or dish from which you’re eating close to your face while dining.
When dining out, it’s customary for men to be served first. When it comes to paying, get up and ask for your check. The Vietnamese consider it rude for a server to bring the bill to the table.
Maintaining your manners while dining in Japan is closely linked with your ability to handle chopsticks. (Note, access to other eating utensils can be limited.) Waving your chopsticks or skewering your food with them is considered rude. You might sit on a tatami, a traditional Japanese mat, at a low-set table. The proper way to sit is with your heels tucked beneath you. Before eating, a warm towel will be delivered to you. This is to wipe your hands; refrain from wiping your face with it!
If you want to follow Japanese dining etiquette as closely as possible, do your best to eat everything on your plate. During after-dinner drinks, never pour your own. Serve your dining companions, and they’ll do the same for you. Your host will likely pay for the meal, but if you’re the highest ranking person at the table, settling the bill will fall to you. Place money to pay for the meal on the small tray on the restaurant table; don’t hand money directly to the server.
Traditional dishes in Myanmar, formerly Burma, include many basic staples, such as rice, noodles and palata (a type of flatbread). Meals in Myanmar are typically served at a low, round table. You can expect to see eating utensils at restaurants, but this is less likely if you’re dining in someone’s home. After sitting down to a meal where utensils aren’t provided, eat with your right hand. Use all your fingers, and try to be as neat as possible. While you might be accustomed to meals in separate courses, in Myanmar, a wide variety of dishes will arrive at the table all at once.
Street food vendors here used to wrap their hot, freshly fried snacks in newspaper; nowadays, plastic bags are common. If you want to save on waste, don’t feel bad about asking for your food to go and bringing your own reusable container. It’s also acceptable to ask for extra broth for free if your mohinga, a rice noodle and fish soup, or Rakhine mone-ti, a clear fish noodle soup, aren’t served quite hot enough.
In Myanmar, food—as opposed to polite conversation—is the focus of any mealtime. So, go ahead. Dig in, and eat your fill without worrying about making conversation between mouthfuls! If you feel the need to sneeze, cough or blow your nose, excuse yourself from the table. When you’re done eating, simply stand up and wash your hands in a nearby basin.
Be ready to share your food when dining in Thailand. Everything ordered at a restaurant is meant to be shared among the whole group. Feel free to speak up during the ordering process and to ask your host to add a few things you’d like to try, but keep in mind those dishes will go around the whole table. Avoid taking more food than you can eat. It’s impolite to leave large amounts of uneaten food on your plate. Eat at a leisurely pace. As you take your time, savor all the different dishes, and remember, it’s rude in Thailand to eat noisily. Some utensil rules common in Asian countries pop up here. Don’t eat with your fork, but do use it to push food onto your spoon. If you happen to be the guest of honor, be prepared to give a short toast at the meal’s conclusion. Your host or hostess will likely kick off the toasting, giving a short speech before you. At the end of the meal, it’s polite to offer to pay, even if only for your part of the meal. Make the offer once, and if it’s declined, gracefully agree.
Don’t be afraid to eat with your hands in India. Some of the best-known street foods, such as panipuri, small puffed bread stuffed with boiled potatoes and chickpeas and filled with mint water, have to be relished by hand! A word of advice: Although it’s not strictly observed in metropolitan areas, it’s still considered disrespectful to eat from your left hand. Left hands are typically reserved for more unsavory tasks, such as removing one’s shoes.
Typical Asian Dishes and Meal Practices
Each Asian nation has its own dining culture and customs, meaning it’s tough to draw similarities between regional cuisines. That said, the following are a few common themes found across Asia:
Good for what ails you.
Throughout Asia, food is largely considered medicine. First and foremost, it’s seen as a vehicle for wellness.
Cold drinks are often absent at meals. Many Asian cultures believe cold drinks negatively impact the ability to digest foods. This means warm or room-temperature drinks are often served before, during and after mealtimes. Hot or warm green tea and other types of teas are perfect examples of this.
Must love soup. For many Asians, soup is viewed as a nutrient-dense food that fills you up quickly. Many Asian soups are made with bones or a combination of vegetables, so you’re getting lots of vitamins and minerals—even in a small portion. Whether bone broth soup, vegetable soup or miso, many soups from this region are rich in vitamins and minerals and are easily absorbed. Many Asian cultures also believe warm soup is beneficial for digestion.
Expect more vegetables than meat. The first thing you might notice about Asian cuisine is how many vegetables are on offer. Your plate will almost certainly be far more full of vegetables (and rice) than meat. In Asia, it seems all vegetables are given their time to shine. Don’t forget to try bitter radishes and a variety of Asian melons.
Work with little plates, long chopsticks and spoons. Many Asian cultures serve meals family style, which means smaller plates and bowls are set for each diner. Chopsticks and spoons are common, but forks are less so. There are many etiquette tips surrounding the use of chopsticks, but these vary based on the country.
Get ready for rice, rice and more rice! Rice is served across Asia as a staple, but it varies greatly in color, flavor and texture. It’s inexpensive to grow and to store, and it’s cultivated across the continent. Nutrient-rich black, brown, red and even purple rice varieties are available, as well as white rice. Even white rice has many varieties in Asia; sushi rice and jasmine rice are the most common. Rice is eaten to supplement many Asian meals, not as a main course.
Dessert isn’t always so sweet. While many Asian countries love sweet pastries, ice creams and treats, fruit is a common dessert. In countries like Japan, dessert is often less sweet than in other Asian countries because the Japanese frequently use green tea or red bean paste to flavor everything from cakes to ice cream.
See all the seafood. Seafood is readily available and widely enjoyed in Asia. Everything from exotic fin fish and shellfish to sea snake and octopus (sometimes still alive!) is enjoyed.
Food temperatures vary with season. Asian cultures pay specific attention to the temperatures of foods, and they often eat warming foods in cold weather and cooling foods in hot weather. This common-sense rule of thumb is an unwritten rule throughout Asia. The “energetic temperature” of foods doesn’t only pertain to the actual temperature of the food but also to the effect different ingredients have on the body. This explains hot curry in the middle of the summer, which is said to help cleanse the inner organs.
Milk isn’t just from a cow. Soy milk and milks made from nuts and seeds are nothing new in Asia, and many are widely enjoyed. These ingredients make for inexpensive, nutrient-rich milks. Don’t be surprised to see almond milk, coconut milk, cashew milk and especially soy milk on your breakfast table.
Tipping Etiquette in Asia
Tipping etiquette varies widely across Asia. In Japan, it’s often considered rude to leave a gratuity because exceptional service is simply implied. In other nations, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, tips are appreciated, but the amount is up to you. Make sure to look into the cultural tipping norms in every Asian country or region you’ll be visiting.