Can I eat with my hand? Cultural table manners.

“Is it offensive if I eat Korean food with my hand?” asked an IT consultant from India. The cross-cultural trainer answered “Well, offensive might be the wrong word. I would advise to observe what the Koreans do and then do as they do”. This question allows looking deeper into the cultural table manners, which we might take for granted but can create a culture shock if we are confronted with the food of a new culture.

There are big differences in the various cuisines depending on which eating utensil they use or not use. Clearly, in cultures, where a fork and knife are used, the food is kept in big sizes i.e. uncut but leaving the joy to the eater to cut it the moment he eats. In cultures where food is eaten with chopsticks, the food is usually cut in smaller pieces (How do you eat a pizza with chopsticks?). The Indian IT consultant wouldn’t certainly enjoy eating Korean food with his hand as there is no support of bread to scoop up the food. The Koreans also love noodle soups and a spoon alone (let alone fingers) is not the best utensil to fish for the long noodles, which are left uncut (as a symbol for long life).

The Korean table manner is a culture of sharing. The only exception applies for your own rice of bowl and your own bowl of soup. In this communal behaviour, there is also precaution of hygiene. The chopsticks, due to their minimal surface touching the food, reduce the spreading of saliva.

It has been observed that the older generation in Korea do not know how to eat with fork and knife. One may think that what it takes is to take a knife into one hand and the fork into the other and you can immediately enjoy the meal. But the reality is that the right usage of the cutlery (and that is for both western as well as Asian style) needs to be learnt, practised and mastered such as playing the piano.

Knowing the proper table manners in different cultures is not only a  question of practicality, but also expresses respect to the culture overall. It gives even bigger insight into the history and evolution of food and behaviours, which cannot be ignored.

So how important is it for you to apply proper table manner when eating food from different cultures?