From Slurping to Burping: Family Meals Around the World

By Angharad May

As human beings, we seem to be intrinsically drawn to structure and routine; this is no different when it comes to food and drink rituals which vary remarkably around the globe. Under the umbrella of seven continents, 195 countries, a plethora of cuisines and countless cultures, family meals look worlds apart from place to place. Are you ready for a whistle-stop-tour of family meals around the world?

One of the key cultural differences in terms of family meals, is how breakfast, lunch and dinner are defined and signified. Even within the UK, there exists a debate over the names of lunch and dinner, or dinner and tea, or supper! European cultures consider the midday-meal to be the main meal of the day, hence the meal where families are most likely to eat together over an extended social-affair with multiple courses, wine and conversation. On the other hand, in Western cultures, the evening-meal is typically the main one after a light midday-meal and perhaps a mid-afternoon snack.  Breakfast is globally the most multifarious, not only from culture to culture, but family to family. Some families sit down together, some grab-and-go, some have a hot, heavy breakfast and some have a lighter fare.

It is not just time that makes family meals different over the world, other distinctions can be seen from the bewildering range of table-manners. What is considered polite in one culture might be offensive in another. The rules that have been drummed into us since childhood are far from universal, making family meals appear dissimilar in different cultures.

A meal is ready to be eaten, but how do we go about this?

Some cultures are fastidious about hand-washing. In developed countries, children learn to do this as a matter of hygiene, but in others, hand-washing is a cultural custom.  For instance, in India, hands are washed before and after meals. This cleansing is not generally done with soap, because Indians eat using their hands, and soap would taint the flavour of the food. Other families cleanse themselves spiritually by starting meals with a prayer, a custom that in many cultures is dying out, but in others is fundamentally inherent. To give thanks for food, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islamic cultures might pray before, and sometimes also after, eating a meal.

Now, is it acceptable to tuck straight into the veritable feast that awaits?  

In Korea, families must wait for the oldest person to start eating, out of respect.  Also, dishes or glasses are not accepted to be taken with just one hand, but both hands are used to demonstrate respect. What’s more, Koreans never blow their nose at family meals; it is considered the height of rudeness. In China, respect is demonstrated by arriving on time and smartly dressed for family meals.

The very position of eating is globally idiosyncratic and several cultures are well-known for sitting on the floor to consume meals. Not only is this traditional in some cultures, it is said to aid digestion as it is necessary to bend slightly forwards and backwards to eat from this position, which activates abdomen muscles and triggers stomach acid secretion. Interestingly, in these cultures, where family meals are centred around the floor, cleanliness is paramount and shoes are not generally worn indoors. Sitting on the floor to eat has roots in yoga and Ayurveda (Indian medicine), in a cross-legged position called the sukhasana or half padmasana. Hence, it is common to do so in India. In Japan this is known as the agura. A more formal Japanese position is called the seiza. There are various other positions used separately by men and women so as to maintain a feminine and macho reputation among peers. Besides, some cultures take gender segregation further; in Western societies the idea of gendered eating has been planted. For example, hunks of juicy steak with chips is for men and delicate seafood with salad is for women. In some Islamic cultures, males and females even have to eat separately, and in few Indian cultures, the men of the family eat the meal first, followed by the females, but this exists to a much lesser extent in an ever-modernising world.  Eating is a complicated affair!

Does the meal taste good?  Maybe it needs a soupçon of salt and pepper? Many cultures are used to having cruet sets on the table to be used as-and-when. Yet, in Egypt adding salt to food is seen as an insult to whoever cooked it, and in Portugal, salt and pepper should not be asked for if they are not already provided. Lastly, Hungarian families use salt and paprika as opposed to salt and pepper.

Are you starting to feel full? Chinese families do not finish all their food, leaving a small amount on the plate to show they have been given more than enough to eat, as in Philippines, Cambodia, Korea, Egypt and Thailand. Indian families however, must finish a meal because wasting food is extremely disrespectful. To avoid waste in Afghanistan, if food is accidentally dropped on the floor, it is customary to pick it up, kiss it and then continue eating.

Many families show gratitude for their meals in different forms. When eating ramen or noodles such as udon or soba, slurping loudly in Japan shows appreciation to the cook, whereas in China, India, Maghreb and Bahrain, burping is considered a compliment for a satisfying meal! In Spain, no-one tends to rush-off after eating, but families stay, enjoying ‘sobremesa’, a period of conversation and relaxation after a meal to let it digest.  Italian families typically finish their meal with an espresso, ‘amaro’ or ‘digestivo’, a strong alcoholic liqueur-type drink meaning digestive (to aid digestion) and Koreans drink only after their meal.

Even in this short article, the plethora of traditional customs taking place at family meals is unequivocal. These rituals act as a base from which to learn about cultures, values, communication and respect, whilst (hopefully!) enjoying a plate of food, whatever it may be, in whichever corner of the world.