24 January 2011

Cross-Cultural Etiquette: Preparing a Meal

When preparing to have international friends over to your home for a meal there are a few things to think of.  If you are unsure of their dietary restrictions it is completely fine to ask them in advance. Even though the following tips may give a general outline, there are always exceptions to the rule. I’ve met Muslims who, while living in America, have decided to eat pork. And I’ve met Hindus who eat meat.  I guess the biggest lesson is to never assume. :-/

If Your Guests Are….

As a general rule our Muslim friends will refrain from pork products and other meats that are not certified Halal. Also, alcohol is prohibited. When it comes to alcohol I always assume. Even if I’ve been offered alcohol while in their home, I will not offer it in mine out of respect for their faith.

A word on “halal.” I used to think that as long as a meal was pork-free it was halal. This is not so. Think of it as you would “kosher”. All kosher foods must be certified as such and in the same way halal foods must be certified. To be halal the animal must be blessed and killed according to that custom. Some Muslims will eat food as long as there is no pork and others will only eat meat that is halal. If your guest makes a point to tell you they only eat halal meat, run to your nearest international grocery or halal market for meat. In most cases meats that are certified kosher will also suffice if you live in a place without much diversity at the market.
 In Arab/Persian culture coffee and tea can play a big role for the night. If you have learned how to make a good Turkish coffee or yummy tea that can be a great end to a dinner. But keep in mind that little quirks can exist throughout Arab/Persian areas in regards to these beverages. In Jordan, for example, serving coffee can be a sign you want someone to leave. In Kazakhstan filling a tea glass to full may mean you want them to gulp it down and leave, whereas a half glass will let them know you want them to stay for refills. There’s no way to know all these things, and you shouldn’t feel bad about not knowing. But once you ask questions and learn these little things about other cultures it will allow you to be more hospitable in a way they will most fully understand.

Many Hindus and most all Buddhists are vegetarians, with some Hindus just avoiding beef. Although your family may be die hard meat lovers it would be my recommendation that while having Hindus or Buddhist vegetarians over for dinner you choose to go all out with your beans and veggies. Cooking meat for yourself may be disrespectful, and the smell may make your friends lose their appetite. Alcohol is also prohibited.

That covers the three most common religions and their restrictions. Most others have very little restriction, and if you are unsure just be sure to ask them.

Other things to consider….

1) Our Muslim friends fast one month out of the year during Ramadan. This means the will refrain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. This month may not be a good time to invite them over for dinner as they usually observe the breaking of the fast with family and fellow Muslims. However, if you do want to invite and they accept be sure to have them over after sunset and serve dinner soon after.

2) I’ve noticed that my friends from China have a very low tolerance to sweets. When thinking of desserts and beverages to offer be sure to choose something more mild.

3) Another thing to consider is what to cook for friends fresh off the plane. If your international friends have arrived in the US in the last week or two be very considerate of the fact that our typical American diet may be throwing them for loops. Try to lay off on the high dairy foods, high fat foods, and anything deep fried.

4) Make more than enough food.

5) Make more than enough food.
6) MAKE MORE THAN ENOUGH FOOD. In most other cultures having plenty for seconds and thirds is just good hospitality.

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