Cultural expectations in a restaurant?
October 30, 2008 9:41 PM   Subscribe

When I go to a restaurant, am I expected to use their cultural mannerisms and customs or is it ok for me to do things however I want? Is there a limit to how lenient they are about letting me do things my way?

For example, if I should find myself at a Japanese restaurant, would anyone be offended if I drank my soup with a spoon instead of from the bowl?
posted by alitorbati to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If they provide you a spoon, they're probably ok with it. It's a restaurant, not their house.
posted by bizwank at 9:49 PM on October 30, 2008

Views differ on this, to be sure, and it depends on circumstances, but in general I think I would consider the customer-vendor relationship to be somewhat universal. You both politely negotiate a transaction, in other words. If you prefer to use a spoon, unless they have none on premises, why should they refuse you one? If you can't use chopsticks, why should you be forced to eat with them?

Certainly in the US a Japanese restaurant is run by a Japanese-American (or maybe not even) and would have experience serving Americans with limited knowledge of Japanese customs. Except in rare cases, which may be not that different from snooty non-Japanese restaurants, you won't encounter anyone looking down on you as long as you're polite and tip well.

If you're with someone else you want to impress, that's another matter -- a date or business associate -- and depends on what their expectations are.
posted by dhartung at 9:50 PM on October 30, 2008

In general, a restaurant is a business, and you are paying for good service as well as food. I have seen waiters get angry at people for "doing it wrong," but then some people are just assholes, regardless of what culture they're from.

The interesting thing about this as it relates to the US, is that Americans have this reputation for being incredibly boorish and disrespectful of other cultures. But Bush aside, the truth is exactly the opposite: if a Japanese man bows to us, we understand that that is his culture, and we usually bow back. No sane person would demand that he shake hands instead. Yet if the situation were reversed, and an American traveled to Japan and offered handshakes instead of bows, most people would say he was being incredibly insensitive and that the Japanese had every right to get angry with him. Maybe it's because we're such a mish-mash of cultures that we place such a high value on respecting the traditions of others, and a low value on forcing others to adapt to our customs.

Another interesting thing is that the perception of what's "authentic" can be way off. For example, walk into any sushi place in the US and you will see chopsticks, and Americans struggling to use them in an effort to fit in and respect Japanese tradition. Yet how do people in Japan eat sushi? With their hands.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:59 PM on October 30, 2008 [4 favorites]

Nthing that sushi is meant to be eaten with fingers. I KNOW how to eat with chopsticks (only the top one moves), but if I'm in a situation where I know I can't make an ass of myself I let the server know I'll need a fork when I give the order.
posted by brujita at 10:26 PM on October 30, 2008

While there's a whole host of Japanese food etiquette (90% of which would send my mother into a massive tizzy if breached) at most Japanese restaurants, the only hard and fast rule is if you are asked to remove your shoes before entering a tatami room, please do so. Even if you aren't asked, you should, especially as it's a Guess culture as opposed to an Ask culture. If you don't want to take off your shoes, then ask to be seated at a regular table.

The only other example I can think of is buffet line etiquette, which is more related to heath department requirements: use a clean (unused) plate for each visit, don't carry your used silverware to the serving areas, and use only the provided serving utensils to serve food to your plate.
posted by jamaro at 10:42 PM on October 30, 2008

Nthing the 'culturally demanding waiters are assholes' thing.

If you're paying for the meal, you are allowed to do with it whatever you like (short of throwing it at other diners). If the waiter has different ideas about that, maybe they should order their own meal.
posted by Pecinpah at 10:56 PM on October 30, 2008

Isn't the customer always right?

Curiously, I often have the opposite experience to you. One of the things I enjoy about Indian food is eating it with my hands (well, my right hand, actually), and one of the aspects of good cooking (in the South of India, especially) is that you should also be able to appreciate the feel of the food, not just the look, smell & taste.

So when I visit an Indian restaurant, I heartily tuck in with my hand. The staff are usually more bemused than anything, but the funny part is that I - a whitey - am often the only person eating this way. Indian patrons stick to the cutlery, presumably because that's the way food is eaten in the West.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:31 PM on October 30, 2008

It really depends.

If you are talking about doing something in a restaurant because your own culture's eating practices are very different--i.e. bringing chopsticks to an Italian restaurant because you are more dextrous with them, I think this is pretty much universally acceptable.

If, on the other hand, you are talking about doing something asinine for show, like eating with your feet, just to see what you can get away with, then, well you deserve whatever shaming you get.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:45 PM on October 30, 2008

Nthing that sushi is meant to be eaten with fingers.

I know it's considered allowable to use your hands to eat sushi in Japan, but are you really serious that it's normal? Is this in Kansai or somewhere? Every sushi restaurant I've ever been in in Tokyo was full of people using chopsticks. I'd be interested to know if it's different outside the places I go!
posted by theyexpectresults at 11:46 PM on October 30, 2008

Actually I've asked around about the sushi and I've been told that the previous posters are dead right: traditionally sushi used to be eaten by hand, it's just much rarer nowadays.
posted by theyexpectresults at 12:00 AM on October 31, 2008

I would feel free to do what you like to an extent (though removing the shoes in certain situations is a must because of the damage they cause to tatami), but keep in mind that any effort you make towards respecting the customs of the locals will in turn be seen as a sign of respect towards the people as well, and will be well-regarded. This is true no matter where you are.

Now, how lenient they are depends entirely on the whims of the staff and/or owner(s), but in all honesty I wouldn't worry about that if I were you. The reactions of others are not something you can really control.

Incidentally, are you talking about a Japanese restaurant in Japan, or one outside of Japan? Outside of Japan the expectations towards foreign customers will obviously be different than if you were in an establishment in Japan.

I tend to eat sushi by hand because nigirizushi tends to be easier to dip in soy sauce that way, but chopsticks are also a perfectly normal and accepted method in Japan. In my experience watching Japanese people eat at sushi restaurants, women tend to use chopsticks more often (perhaps to avoid dirtying their hands or dealing with sticky rice?).
posted by armage at 12:39 AM on October 31, 2008

You're allowed to do it however you want.

However the other patrons and employees are allowed to make fun of you if you if you do something really goofy, like eat sushi with a fork and knife or ask for chopsticks at a Thai restaurant.

But that's more or less true in the rest of the world outside of restaurants and different cutures.

I've lived a couple years in Japan. But when I go to a sushi joint in America, even one whit a full Japanese staff, I still eat sushi "American" style, though I usually order in Japanese. Though I get my share of eye rolls for being a white guy ordering in Japanese.

In short, do what you know. It's better than trying something thinking you're paying someone some kind of honor when you're actually screwing it up.
posted by Ookseer at 12:41 AM on October 31, 2008

Speaking of Japanese restaurants, my favorite chef told me it was not only OK to use your hands instead of chopsticks, but that it was preferable. It showed a more complete appreciation of his work because the feel is part of it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:43 AM on October 31, 2008

I know sushi is eaten with fingers: On a date I use the sticks. With buds I use fingers.
posted by sourwookie at 12:50 AM on October 31, 2008

Ideal: follow the local mannerisms. This means using spoon and fork in Thai restaurants, using naan or other flatbread to scoop curry in Indian restaurants, etc.

Polite: Make an effort to follow customs where they impinge upon other diners and the staff (eg no double-dipping in American restaurants), but use your knife and fork if that's what makes you happy.

Borderline: Distressing people at your own table (real life example: a fellow South Asian at university who would always eat Caesar salad with his fingers. I'm from the same part of the world, but found it odd, and I'm sure the Americans found it extremely odd). I suppose sushi with knife and fork may fall in the same category, depending how sensitive your companions are.

Rude: Complaining that there's no knife and fork, wondering loudly why your dietary habits aren't accommodated.

My own feeling is that you're a paying customer, but part of what you're paying is the experience of eating. As long as you don't get squicked, it's fun to eat like the locals. Very few restaurants are going to get more than sniffy about incorrect eating ways, and it's good to have a thick enough skin to withstand a sniffy waiter.

And a by-the-way note on eating with one's hands in South Asia: naan or other breads are always eaten with the hands. Rice is variable: it's often considered genteel to eat with a spoon and fork, and most genteel of all to eat with knife and fork, but people do it all ways. At home, here in Pakistan, my mum uses her fingers, my father prefers forks, both use cutlery at restaurants.
posted by tavegyl at 1:51 AM on October 31, 2008

This is a multivariable equation here. The factors are as follows:

1) DeltaS = |Scustomer - Srestaurant | (the absolute magnitude of the difference in how self-important each party perceives the other to be)

2) DeltaC = |Ccustomer - Crestaurant| (the absolute magnitude of the difference in relevant cultural dining tradition)

3) MutualT = Tcustomer x Trestaurant (the product of the tolerances of the individuals involved)

4) N (the number of other total customers and waitstaff bearing witness)

5) R = Random number to simulate mood (use a Poisson distribution to simulate)

The limit of leniency, L, is approached with a level of discomfort where d rises exponentially as you -> L. The precise formula and adjusting constants for function L are left as an exercise to the reader.
posted by adipocere at 7:08 AM on October 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

What about eating noodles or soup in a Japanese restaurant in the US? I was informed that in a business setting in the US it is never acceptable to raise a soup bowl closer to your face for the purpose of easier shoveling. If I'm at a business lunch in a Japanese restaurant is this acceptable? I guess it's better to err on the side of not disgusting your American colleagues.
posted by Telf at 10:46 AM on October 31, 2008

Eating at a Japanese restaurant (or home or workplace) in Japan, then you have to drink the soup out of the bowl. Chopsticks are the norm, even with soup, so bringing the bowl to your mouth is the norm, and a darn efficient way to eat soup, I might add.

However, if you're given a spoon to eat the Japanese soup, then by all means use it.
posted by zardoz at 4:35 AM on November 2, 2008

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