Photo: Eat immediately.

If this is your first trip to Southeast Asia, you’re in for a treat: You have a whole region’s cuisine to discover. It can help to keep in mind a few differences you may encounter when compared to your home country.

The staple across the region is usually rice and depending on the setting, food is often served on plates (or in bowls) which are placed at the centre of the table and you then ladle servings onto your personal plate, which typically has a serving of steamed rice on it. You combine the two to your pleasure and eat.

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It is a common misconception that you eat everything with chopsticks. This is incorrect, though you won’t particularly offend people if you choose to do this. Generally chopsticks are reserved for some noodle dishes and occasionally soup—often dishes with Chinese heritage.

The primary eating implement is either a spoon or your right hand, depending on where you are. A fork is used to push food onto the spoon, but it is the spoon, not the fork, with which you stuff your face. Again, as with chopsticks, it is no big deal if you want to eat with your fork, but you might draw a stare or two.

The one thing you don’t do is eat with your left hand. The left hand is traditionally seen as looking after the other end of your digestive process and is seen as unclean. If you are eating by hand (common in Indonesia and Malaysia for example, less so in Thailand) put your food into your mouth with your right hand only, please. Also, if you are eating by hand, the table should have a bowl of clean water placed on it—this is for washing your fingers, not for drinking.

Restaurant kitchens, particularly local, street food kitchens, will not be operating to the standards of cleanliness and safety you might be used to. Is that a baby hammock hanging between an LPG bottle and a wok going full pelt? Yes. Did I just see a three rats run across the floor? Yes. Would Exxon be interested in oil exploration around the grease trap? Yes. Is that a cat sleeping by the chopping board? Yes. Is the food delicious? Absolutely.

Unless in an a la carte restaurant (and even then, only maybe) food will come when it is ready, and not necessarily in the order you want it. If you’re a stickler for meal ordering, the only way to be sure that the curry comes after the noodles is to order the noodles, eat them, and then order the curry.


Depending on the cuisine, food may be prepared only when you order it, or it may have been prepared earlier in the day. If you have dietary concerns or allergies, having a card explaining them in local language can be very helpful. People with peanut allergies will have significant difficulties avoiding them in Southeast Asian food, as peanut oil is used in almost everything.

In local eateries, tipping is not expected, but always appreciated. It is increasingly common for sit-down restaurants to add on a standard service fee of 5-10 percent. You are not expected to tip over this amount, though of course nobody will complain if you do.

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