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Dining customs around the world How to eat like the locals

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Adjusting to cultural norms is part of a rich travel experience. Two things we know in Singapore – how to live together, and how to eat!

When travelling abroad, here are tips from Budget Direct Insurance on dining customs elsewhere. To give you a flavour of the manners you should bring to the international dining table.

Eating right

Since the left hand is considered unclean in Muslim tradition, in many countries in Asia, North Africa and the Middle East it is a major faux pas if used for eating. Scoop food with the fingers of your right hand and wash your hands thoroughly before and after your meal.


Use a spoon to eat and only use a fork if you are putting food onto a spoon. Never put a fork into your mouth and knives are a no-no at the table.


Never pass food from one set of chopsticks to another as it reminds Japanese people of a Buddhist funeral rite. On a similar note and for the same reason, don’t leave chopsticks upright in your rice bowl. Never lick food from your chopsticks and don't cross them when you're not using them. Put them down on a holder or parallel on the table. 


Like in Japan, chopstick etiquette should be followed. Leave a small amount of food on your plate or in your dish to indicate you don’t want anymore. This also shows how generous the chef has been in providing you with more than enough food.

South Korea

Like many Asian countries respect for one's elders is very important. In South Korea the oldest person at the table should be allowed to begin eating first.


Traditionally elbows should never be on the table. It is polite to wait till everyone has their meal in front of them before starting to eat, unless your fellow diners indicate otherwise. Dirty dishes should not be cleared before everyone has finished eating.


The concept of equality underpins much of Australian society so always offer to pay your way, split the bill, buy a round of drinks or contribute your share. Offer some resistance when someone wants to pay for you, they will probably then insist so accept graciously.

3 famous cultural blunders that should have been avoided

It may be heartening to know that even the wealthiest, best-advised people and companies get it wrong from time to time…

  1. British food company Sharwood’s spent a fortune launching a new curry sauce in 2003 called Bundh. Only to be informed by Punjabi speakers that the new product sounded like the Punjabi word for bottom.

  2. Celebrity Elizabeth Hurley got into hot water when she showed disrespect to Hindu traditions at her own wedding in India in 2007. She managed this by drinking alcohol and not taking her shoes off in the sacred marriage place. 

  3. And perhaps the worst of all, although he was suffering from flu at the time…

    Former US President George H.W Bush Sr vomited in the lap of Japanese PM Kiichi Miyazawa during a diplomatic dinner in 1992. The incident meant a new phrase was coined in Japan – bushu-suru or to do a Bush. We doubt he’s been asked to dinner since.

Most local people will be fairly forgiving of travellers who commit small cultural faux pas, but respecting your host with some cultural knowledge certainly goes a long way.


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