Food Culture and Manners in East Asia

By Kimi Shao, ISA Senior Asia Specialist

We cannot stop LOVING the food we eat in Asia. The diversity, the colors, the multiple plates, the irreplaceable flavors from country to country, even region to region! Food is not only a great part of the culture in your host country, but also an adventure, a great means to get to know the locals, and  to be familiar with other aspects of the culture simply through a dining experience.

With that in mind, we want to share with you some of the common courtesies and food manners in some of the East Asian countries, so you can be prepared!

When dining in China, Japan and South Korea, specifically, there are some common rules that are applied to dining tables across the board; for example:

  • Don’t expect there to be a fork, a knife or a salt shaker on the table.
  • Tipping is NOT practiced.
  • When passing out things such as chopsticks, spoons, napkins, water, etc., it is a common courtesy to pass them to everyone at the table first before taking them for yourself.
  • When eating with the elders, let the elders or the guests begin to eat first before you touch the food in front of you.

Specific eating courtesies can be VERY different in each of these three countries! So study up before you go, so you don’t feel like a complete outsider when having dinner with some new, local friends!

In China:

  • The guest of honor is always seated to the right of the host; the next in line will sit on his left.
  • The “Lazy Susan” turntable should only be turned one way, and it’s impolite to turn the turntable a different direction to get the food you like.
  • There are many “no-no’s” with chopsticks such as twiddling them, licking them, using them to stir up food, gesturing with them or pointing them at others.
  • Formal dining is always accompanied by tea, beer or a distilled spirit. The one who sits closest to the teapot or wine bottle should pour for others following the order of guests (the eldest to the youngest).
  • When finding your favorite dish, you should not gobble it up as quickly as possible or put the plate in front of yourself. You should consider others at the table and eat an individual portion unless it’s the 2nd time the dish is turned in front of you.

In South Korea:

  • Chopsticks in Korea are made with stainless steel and tend to be much heavier than you expect.
  • It is a common custom to make sure that your neighbors’ drinking glass is filled up quickly after they finish it.
  • To show respect when drinking alcohol, you should face away from everyone at the table, especially the elders, using both hands to hold the drinking cup.
  • Cooking scissors are used instead of knives in Korean dinning, so be sure to use them to cut long noodles or BBQ meats!
  • Use the bell that is placed on the table to call for service! Talk about convenience.

In Japan:

  • When eating from bowls, it is proper manners to pick up small bowls with your hand and keep it close to your mouth while eating; however, larger types of dishes should generally not be picked up.
  • When eating from shared dishes, it is polite to use the opposite end of your chopsticks or dedicated serving chopsticks for moving food.
  • Slurp, slurp and slurp! When eating noodles and soup, please do slurp, as it is a sign of how much you are enjoying your food.
  • Do NOT blow your nose on the dining table. If you need to do so, do so in the restroom, as it’s very impolite to do so during a meal in Japan.
  • Do you know how to eat sushi properly? Learn before you go because you are probably eating sushi all wrong! Only the fish side of the sushi should be dipped lightly into the soy sauce, instead of the rice, and don’t ever eat the prickled ginger with sushi, as it’s meant to be eaten separately.

With all this being said, don’t be afraid of making mistakes! Locals won’t be mad if you make any of the mistakes mentioned above and they will probably joke about it and teach you politely and nicely if it happens. But if you can manage the detailed table etiquettes in each of these countries, your friends will definitely be amazed and appreciative of how much you have learned about their culture even before visiting!

Learn more about cultures and cultural activities in each of these countries by following the links below or by contacting Kimi Shao, ISA’s Asia Specialist.



South Korea

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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