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#133 Putting Food On Other Peoples’ Plates

Posted August 25th, 2010 by Peter · 22 Comments

You’ve just been invited to eat by your best Asian friend and their family. You all enter a wonderful smelling restaurant I will stereotypically call, “Seafood Paradise.” Everyone orders, and you wait for your food to arrive. You expect your own plate. You expect your own food. Instead, the waiter brings all the food to the center of the table..

…What now?

It has certainly been a very long time since our last post (due to increasing workloads at school and a very busy summer). It was always in the back of my mind, though. Yesterday (finally), I was browsing through our giant list of submissions and came across Jackie Smith, who suggested “Putting Food On Other Peoples’ Plates.” This is something I have witnessed throughout my entire life; first as a child (receiving food) and as a much larger child in college (receiving and giving food).

DISCLAIMER: I have never particularly enjoyed the etiquette due to hygienic concerns, but it does make my life much easier as an avid food taster. You will also not find this food etiquette in all parts of Asia.

First things first– there are a few things everyone should know about eating with Asians:

  • Like with other cultures, playing with cutlery (in our case, chopsticks) is very inappropriate. Playing with food is also frowned upon.
  • Piercing food with chopsticks is okay if it is big and difficult to handle (fishballs).
  • Leaving one’s chopsticks standing straight up in their bowl is very disrespectful (and might even resemble deceased family members) due to likeness to incense

After these ground rules, the rest are purely regional and ethnic. Take China and Vietnam, where it is very common to hold bowls and plates up to ones’ mouth and push food directly in. It is also acceptable to put food onto other peoples’ plates as long as they are close friends or family. If your Asian friends have bad chopstick handling skills, it will reflect badly on their parents (who should have taught them how to use them correctly in the first place). Don’t forget to let elders eat first!

In Hong Kong, the oldest family member picks up their chopsticks first. Putting chopsticks at the top of one’s bowl means, “I’m full,” while crossed chopsticks on top means, “I’m taking a breather.” In Taiwan, passing food between chopsticks is bad. Koreans may seem the most backwards because it is “ill-mannered” to eat rice with chopsticks (go figure…).

On the other hand, people in India, Indonesia, and Malaysia use their hands to eat. If you’re having trouble using utensils (or none at all in some cases), you can just ask the waiter for your utensil of choice– chances are they are more than willing to accommodate foreigners. Communal serving chopsticks are also accepted (and available) in most restaurants.

For more information, you can check out:
Learn Thai Culture
Asian Eating Etiquette

We hope this helps, Jackie!

That’s it for the first installment of SAPL in quite a long time. Thank you Jackie, and thank you all for your patience. Posts are coming bi or tri-weekly, so remember to come back often and share all the Asian goodness with your friends.


Last 5 posts by Peter

Tags: Activities · Cuisine · Culture · Customs · Environment · Food & Beverage · Habits · People

22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 renr // Aug 26, 2010 at 3:41 am

    Lol I’ve been at the receiving end of many a relative whose sole purpose at the dining table seems to be to pile food onto other peoples’ plates. :D

    In Japan as well, passing food between chopsticks is taboo, since you’d only do that to pass the bones of your cremated family members.

  • 2 Mike Y. // Aug 26, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Insightful post, Peter! Truth be told, I do that to all my American friends. They all understand and they dig the friendly practice.

    Occasionally, we’ll keep doing it to each other just to annoy the heck out of them, lol.

    Of course, hygiene could be a concern if people are actually sick. ..

    Some one should do a study on disease transmission due to the practice. Could be interesting find (and the beginning of the end for the practice…?).

  • 3 Bagus // Aug 27, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Indonesian, in general, employs spoon & fork as eating utensils like Filipino does.

    Also the term Asian here mainly points to the East Asian cultural sphere.

    Asia is huge, mate, so you better be specific.

  • 4 BananaViews // Sep 1, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    I totally get that other cultures might not understand the caring equals sharing aspect of the family dinner table. But my ex was a born and raised heartland Canadian and I couldn’t get over his family taking half the food on the dishes and scooping it on their side plates. Seriously? Communal eating isn’t that unusual. I felt like they didn’t trust me so they had to hoard their portion. LOL. Perspectives man! Hilarious. Keep posting.

  • 5 lee shin young // Sep 4, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    “Koreans may seem the most backwards because it is “ill-mannered” to eat rice with chopsticks (go figure…).”

    I’ve been here in Korea for almost 2 years and I’ve never encountered anything negative about eat rice using chopsticks…hmmm! that made me think…

  • 6 Caroline // Sep 5, 2010 at 12:14 am

    In response to,
    “Koreans may seem the most backwards because it is “ill-mannered” to eat rice with chopsticks (go figure…).”

    It’s not true. I am Korean and we have no problem with eating rice using chopsticks.

  • 7 Pseudanonymous // Sep 6, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    As for Malaysia, whilst eating with hands does occur, most people eat with a spoon and fork on a day to day basis, although chopsticks are generally used for noodles and traditionally Chinese dishes such as steamboat. That said, some of my (Chinese) cousins have pretty poor chopstick control and use a spoon and fork for pretty much everything.

  • 8 Appalachia // Sep 20, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    I’m an Appalachian aka Hillbilly and we do the exact samething ! If you refuse food in our culture, it’s like slapping someone in the face or outright disrespecting them. Then the women will get passive aggressive and the men will get out right aggressive. But that’s how we roll.

    I think this and our food customs go back to being dirt poor and not having a lot of food and having the open heart to share it with those that don’t have much either.

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  • 10 Chinamerican // Oct 28, 2010 at 6:33 am

    Actually, that is fairly gross if you use your own chopsticks but it doesn’t seem weird at all to me when you use the serving utensils they give you.

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  • 12 Fil-Am sporting news // Jan 18, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    love the Asian culture and proud to be Asian..

  • 13 Ian Low // Jan 20, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Malaysians do not eat with their hands you dumb ass. Get your facts straight.Only a portion of Malays, Indians and indigenious people still eat with their hands. The rest of them use forks and spoons. The Chinese on the other hand use Chopsticks or forks for noodles but mostly chopsticks and when eating rice will use a spoon and a fork or sometimes with a pair of chopsticks if eating from a bowl

  • 14 Anonymous // Jan 28, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    @renr, I’m confused! What does passing food between chopstix mean? Should i set my chopstix on lap b4 i pass food to person who’s also using chopstix… so that food is not in between our chopstix? (no, this is ‘t Jessica Simpson but i feel like it!!)

  • 15 renr // Jan 29, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    @anon, passing stuff between chopsticks essentially signifies death in Japan, so that’s a no-no. However, many cultures like mine do that anyway because we don’t have that belief. :P

    I guess one way to go about it is to place the food directly on some plate, and then the receiver would proceed to take it from there. Hope that helps!

  • 16 Anon. // Jul 25, 2011 at 1:17 am

    There are serving chopsticks, so does the hygiene concern really apply?

  • 17 Vinnie // Mar 28, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    I’m glad you mention about Indonesia… Yes, we use everything we can use here – hands, spoons, forks, knives, chopsticks… If there’s a culture that use shovel to eat I’m pretty sure we’ll master it soon too!
    Just for a side note, even in traditional restaurants where people used to eat with their hands, there are spoons and forks available; even if they aren’t, feel free to ask the waiter/waitress for some. And you’ll also find a bowl of water with a piece of lime in it – that’s for washing your hands, not for drinking.

  • 18 ilovehorseyrides // Aug 14, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    you so skinny….eat more!!!! XD

  • 19 ilovehorseyrides // Aug 14, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    Don’t make your utensils stand up. That symbolizes death.

  • 20 basil // May 1, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    I was from Hong Kong, and since SARS, the HK community in HK and out (ex-pats) use a common pair of chopsticks, 公筷, to get food from dishes as well as give food to people, and eat with a personal pair of chopsticks.

  • 21 شركة كشف تسربات المياه شمال الرياض // Jun 27, 2019 at 2:29 pm

    I’m glad you mention about Indonesia… Yes, we use everything we can use here – hands, spoons, forks, knives, chopsticks… If there’s a culture that use shovel to eat I’m pretty sure we’ll master it soon too!

  • 22 شركة نقل عفش بجدة // Jun 27, 2019 at 2:30 pm

    Actually, that is fairly gross if you use your own chopsticks but it doesn’t seem weird at all to me when you use the serving utensils they give you.

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