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Mind Your Manners: How to Feast in the Tropics Without Offending Anyone

When it comes to table manners and food etiquette, it’s safe to say that most of us, whilst growing up, had only a few essential rules to remember. Keeping your mouth firmly shut whilst chewing, elbows off the table, and ‘don’t play with your food!’ being among the most common in Western countries. Pack your bags and start travelling to the tropics and you’ll soon realize how difficult it can be to mind your table manners abroad. No matter how hard you try, you’re bound to inadvertently do the wrong thing, all the while smugly thinking you’ll go down in history as the world’s best dinner guest. From cleaning up every morsel of food on your plate, to using a fork precisely as you were taught as a child, there are countless table customs in tropical countries that are different to what you are accustomed to. Some customs are unique to one particular country, others shared by several. Yet to outsiders, all can seem utterly bizarre.

When travelling, it’s ever so easy to suffer a bout of foot-in-mouth disease by doing all the wrong things (following travel etiquette tips go a long way in ensuring this doesn’t happen to you) yet none are as grievous (well, almost) as breaking major rules at the dinner table.

So brush up on your tropical table manners before booking that ticket to your dream destination and make sure you know how to feast away with the locals….without offending anyone.

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DON’T be on time – Venezuela and Tanzania

Punctuality is one of those “good manners” most revered back home, Everyone knows that showing up late for dinner – either in a restaurant or someone’s home – is considered very poor form. Not in Venezuela and Tanzania! In these two tropical havens, it’s punctuality that is considered rude. The local recommendation is that you show up about 15 minutes later than invited, so as not to appear greedy or excessively eager. In fact, this is only one of over a dozen dining etiquette tips for Venezuela, although the ‘do not get drunk during dinner’ should be an adopted habit in just about every country on the planet you visit. Perhaps, along with ‘never speak with a mouth full of food’!

DON’T talk business at the dinner table – Bolivia

In Western countries, we are often brought up to never discuss two subjects at the dinner table: politics and religion. But in Bolivia, it’s blatantly rude to chat about business over a meal. Sharing a meal is something that’s revered as a sociable event that’s meant to enrich relationships, not your bank account. This rule also applies to business lunches with colleagues or clients! If you’re invited to a meal while in Bolivia on business, it’s customary to wait until the host brings up the subject of work before cascading into a brainstorming session. If business is never brought up, then consider yourself lucky. Your host thinks very highly of you if he/she has invited you out to a delectable local meal with no ulterior motives. Follow this comprehensive Bolivia dining etiquette guide if you’re headed to Bolivia for an extended period of time and really want to impress your hosts. Buen provecho!

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DON’T finish all the food on your plate – Cambodia and the Philippines

I can’t remember the countless times I was forced to sit at the table as a child, long after my brother had been allowed to get up, because I had yet to finish all the food on my plate. Had I known leaving some food on your plate is a show of gratitude in some tropical countries, I certainly would have used that as my argument! Although it is indeed customary to polish off your plate in most countries the world over, there are a few exceptions where doing so signals to your hosts that they didn’t cook, or order, enough food for you. Be polite and leave a mouthful on your plate when travelling through Cambodia or the Philippines, but be mindful of the poverty found in both gorgeous nations. Leaving just a little food is considered good manners, but letting half a plate of food go to waste, not so much.

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(By Zlerman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5181049)

DON’T ever use your left hand to handle food – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India, Ethiopia

Eating with your hands is one of the most delectable customs you’ll ever come across. There’s something inherently earthy about not tasting metal with every bite. Plus, dropping food in your mouth with your fingers is messy and insanely fun. However, let it be known – lest you be ostracized from your host country for all eternity – that it’s only your right hand that should EVER (and we mean EVER!) be used as a utensil. In tropical countries where toilet paper is redundant, a bucket of water and your left hand is an acceptable replacement. Because of sanitary conditions, the left hand is obviously considered unclean, no matter how many times your wash and sanitize. Practice eating with your left hand tied behind your back, before you even leave home, and you’ll have the custom down to a fine art!

DO drop some food on the floor – Peru & Bolivia

Here’s another custom that would have sent my mum screaming! In Peru and Bolivia it is customary to drop a little of your food and drink on the ground before the start of every meal. This beautiful Andean custom dates back hundreds of years, and is meant to represent your “sacrifice” to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. She gifts you all that wonderful food, so it’s only polite to offer some of it back to her. This custom originates from an ancient ritual called ch’alla, which also includes burying of offerings to the goddess of fertility and Earth Mother.

However, it’s worth noting that, nowadays, you’ll only come across this thoughtful custom in high-altitude villages inhabited by ethnic Andean folks. So keep that in mind before you start flinging mouthfuls of food on the floor in posh restaurants in the capital cities!

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DON’T use the fork the way (you think) it’s intended – Thailand

Who on earth would have ever thought that we’ve been using forks the wrong away all these years? In Thailand, it is considered very impolite to put food in your mouth with your fork. Instead, the fork is used to pass food onto your spoon, and that’s the only utensil that should ever touch your lips. Go figure…

…Except in Nigeria

To make things even more complicated, it’s worth noting that in Nigeria, particularly among the Kagoro tribe, women are not allowed to use spoons at all as this is akin to communicating with the Devil. So if you happen to be female, and visiting areas of Nigeria where the Kagoros are prevalent, play it safe and use a fork.

Follow our handy tips and brush up on your tropical table manners before you travel, and we guarantee you will go down in history as the world’s best dinner guest.

Written by

Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 11 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now, along with her partner in love and travel, riding a motorbike from Germany to Australia. Laura moonlights as a freelance travel writer and, between adventures, loves sharing her travel ramblings on her personal website: http://laurastraveltales.com/