Food and mealtimes are very important to all cultures around the world. We may be judged harshly if we use the wrong knife and fork at a posh dinner, or if we put milk in our teacup before we pour the tea, or – heaven forbid – let out a long belch after a satisfying meal. On the flip side, there are some places where a loud burp is the perfect way to thank your host for a delicious feast.
In some cultures around the world there are very strict rules about the foods you can and can’t eat, and the etiquette involved in dining. Sometimes this is related to environmental conditions, taboos based on religion, or superstitions that have been handed down through the generations, yet are still very much alive and observed today. This makes it very necessary for you to be a smart traveler.
If you enjoy traveling to far and exotic locations, it can be helpful to know about the food taboos in your chosen destination in order to prevent you from making a social faux pas at the dinner table, and inadvertently offending your host.
Check out the list below of 15 food taboos from around the world to learn about the strange mealtime customs enjoyed in different countries.
15. Eggs & Chicken? Not For Children
There are lot of taboos about egg and chicken products, and the impact they may have on young children. Jamaican parents believe that their children will never learn to talk if they feed them chicken before they have spoken for the first time. Nigerian parents, on the other hand, think that feeding half eggs to growing children will turn them into thieves. Chinese parents also steer clear of chicken, believing that the meat will make their offspring fight more, and also affect their ability to perform well in exams. While such taboos, or superstitions, are disappearing in urban areas, there are still huge numbers of rural families who abide strictly by these rules.
14. Don’t Serve Baby’s Milk From A Bottle
Parents not feeding their children eggs or chicken may seem a little strange, but it is unlikely to do the kids much harm in the long run. Perhaps more strangely, there are also taboos relating to young children and milk in almost the same parts of the world. In some parts of Nigeria, for example, it is thought that children who drink coconut milk will grow up to be unintelligent. And in Jamaica, parents don’t like to feed their babies milk from a bottle, as they believe that this will make them grow up to be drunkards – the perfect way to get Moms to believe that “breast is best!”
13. Never Go Dutch In Russia
If you are a lady and are lucky enough to have been asked out to dinner in Russia, then don’t even think of taking your wallet with you, or trying to strike a blow for feminism by insisting on paying for your share. From St. Petersburg to Moscow, it is simply accepted that men will pay the final bill at the restaurant. If you are the man in this equation, asking your date to “go Dutch” is a very quick and effective way to guarantee that there definitely won’t be a second date with your new catch.
12. Restricted Diet For Pregnant Women
A lot of pregnant women have strange food cravings, but a hankering for ice cream and pickles is nothing compared to the food taboos of the Orang Asli tribe, who live in rural Malaysia. Women in the tribe have a very restricted diet when pregnant. Actually, tribal traditions dictate that they can only eat small animals, such as rats, squirrels, frogs and small fish, as these creatures are thought to contain weaker spirits, which won’t affect the health of the unborn baby. It may not make for a very satisfying meal, but it just shows how seriously mothers-to-be take the health of their babies, no matter where they live.
11. Don’t Eat Carnivorous Fish
Brazilians aren’t just known for their soccer and scantily-clad fiestas. They are also famous for some of the best seafood dishes in the world. However, many carnivorous fish are actively avoided in traditional Brazilian dishes, as the locals believe that these can make the eater fall ill. If you are already feeling under the weather, your Brazilian host may well recommend that you steer clear of shark or piranha, and instead go for a menu option featuring an omnivorous or herbivorous fish, as these are trusted remedies for helping to heal illnesses, especially an upset stomach.
10. Don’t Eat Beef
Many of the best-known food taboos from around the world, derive their basis from religious beliefs. For example, Hinduism, a religion which makes up 15% of the world’s population, restricts believers from eating beef. Hindus live predominantly in India, and they believe that the cow is so useful – thanks to its milk products and leather – that it must have been a gift from the gods, and that it is therefore, disrespectful to eat such an important and valuable animal.
There is often a misconception that cows are considered sacred in India, and visitors are therefore surprised to see poorly-treated animals wandering the streets. There is one Hindu festival, known as the Gopastami, when the cow is given its proper appreciation. Usually, these humble farm animals are taken care of in the temples, in the hope that their gifts will continue.
9. Watch How You Handle Your Chopsticks
Both the Japanese and the Chinese use chopsticks to eat their meal, and each have their own dos, don’ts, and taboos when it comes to how they should be used. For example, if you want to share some food from your plate while in Japan, you should never pass it using your chopsticks directly, but should instead, place the food item on a side plate. In addition, if you are eating in China and have some rice left in your bowl at the end of a meal, the worst thing you can do is stick your chopsticks upright in the bowl after you’re done. This is how people pay tribute to their ancestors during visits to their family shrine, but if you do it in a restaurant, the practice is supposed to bring a curse upon the proprietor!
8. Don’t Leave Food On Your Plate – It’s An Insult!
French cooking is now renowned around the world for its high standards, and most French people know it! As a consequence of these high standards, there are a lot of etiquette rules and taboos when it comes to dining in the best French restaurants. In addition to rules about the right way to use a knife and fork, or the right glass, you are expected to take your time with your food. You must not rush through your meal, which the chef skillfully put a lot of effort into. Also, leftover food is taken as an insult, as is asking for seconds. And the last thing you should do when dining on the Champs Elysees is ask for a doggie bag for your leftovers. Non.
7. Don’t Eat Fresh Fruits And Vegetables When Menstruating
When women living in Papua New Guinea are menstruating, there are a lot of restrictions placed on the kinds of food that they are allowed to eat. Most of this stems from a misunderstanding of what menstruation is, as the women are thought to be ill, and as a consequence are not allowed to eat fresh fruit, vegetables, or meat. They are not even allowed to cook fresh food for others, as anyone who eats food prepared by a menstruating woman will also become sick, according to tribal lore.
6. Only Eat Wild Pig And Wallaby
This is less of a food taboo, and more of an alternative food choice for the inhabitants of the village of Boitalu. These people are the only residents of Kiriwina Island, part of Papua New Guinea, who are permitted to hunt and eat the wild pigs and wallabies that live there. The people of Boitalu have been socially excluded from the rest of the Kiriwina Island population, which means they have also been excluded from the more usual and more easily-accessibly food sources on the island, which is why they have made a success of hunting more challenging creatures for hundreds of years.
5. Don’t Dare Drop That Food, If So….
Muslim culture has a number of taboos and rules surrounding food and mealtimes, but one of their best observed etiquette rules concerns food that has been accidentally dropped on the floor. Should you accidentally drop an item of food, such as a piece of bread, Muslim etiquette dictates that you should pick up the food, kiss it, raise it to your forehead and then return it to the plate? This isn’t just about reducing food waste – although it achieves the same outcome – but is in fact to show respect to the food, which Muslims believe has been provided by God.
4. Don’t Accept A Food Offer The First Time
Italian mothers and grandmothers have a reputation for feeding their families a lot, and often. However, if you are visiting Italian friends or acquaintances, etiquette dictates that you should actually decline a food/dining request the first time you are offered. Don’t worry, you won’t have missed out on a chance of some delicious home-made pizza or pasta, as they will always ask you again. And unlike the French, Italians are more than happy to serve you seconds, and to send you home with a doggy bag. In fact, the only way you can insult an Italian cook is by asking for parmesan cheese before it has been offered, as it suggests that you think their food needs more flavour.
3. Don’t Dare Serve Before Grandma Does
It may be respectful to turn down food from an Italian grandma the first time that she offers you a meal, but there are lots of other cultures where older people are shown respect by the way they are served food at family gatherings and local restaurants. For example, in Colombia, the oldest person at the table should always be served first, which could lead to some interesting discussions among the waiting staff. This is taken a notch higher in South Korea, where no-one is allowed to start eating until the oldest person at their table has taken their first bite.
2. Don’t Use Cutlery
There are lots of places where digging into food with your bare hands is considered a dining no-no, although most people will make exceptions for pizza and burgers. There are certain cultures however, where it is actually polite to eat with your fingers, and cutlery isn’t used at all. In India, for example, people use their fingers and pieces of naan bread to scoop up handfuls of curry and rice. It is important to note that, although this is an apparently free and relaxed atmosphere, there are still taboos, such as only using your right hand, as using your left is extremely insulting to your host.
1. Don’t Cook Pork, Or Any Pig Products
While Hindus don’t eat beef, there are two major religious groups that don’t eat pigs or any pork products – Jews and Muslims. Both groups consider the pig to be an unclean animal, unfit for human consumption. Many Jews and Muslims will take their commitment very seriously, avoiding any foods which may even have come into contact with pork or pig products. Although this is seen as a religious rule, there is also a practical aspect to it. Pork actually decomposes faster than most other types of meat, and this is a factor when you remember that most Jews and Muslims, (in the days before refrigerators, anyway) lived in hot, dessert areas, where decomposing meat could be a health hazard.
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