Friday, May 23, 2008

Egyptian Etiquette for Eating

A good article on the Etiquette and Social Customs surrounding food and eating in Egypt from the Wall Street Journal.

The article (appended below) is quite in line with my own experiences in this country.

When I first had Egyptian guests over, I was aghast when they left substantial portions of food on their plate. I thought they did not enjoy the food and it was unappealing to them. Another Egyptian friend explained to me, that leaving food on the plate was a sign that the host had been generous.

In India where I come from, food is served in a semi-buffet kind of system. The dishes are placed in the center and guests serve themselves or the hostess serves them individually while the guest motions whether they would like a little more or if it has been enough. This is completely unlike the Western system of serving plated food to guests.

Think of an Indian meal as a barbeque setting. Serve yourself and eat with your hands - no cutlery. Although the British did leave behind the use of cutlery during the occupation, forks and spoons aren't commonly used except in formal settings. Food is supposed to be more tasty when eaten with the fingers. It eliminates the taste of metal or plastic in your mouth. Plus certain Indian foods like dosas and rotis are not conducive to eating with a knife and fork.

In the Indian scenario, the larger the variety of items on the table the more hospitable you have been. In meat eating families, at least 3 varieties of meat are served at a meal where guests have been invited. Also when guests are invited over. There should be food to spare in the serving dishes.

One is supposed to eat up everything that is put in one's plate. To leave behind large quantities of food on the plate is considered rude towards the hostesses culinary abilities or a sign of bad upbringing. Most Indian children have grown up with the refrain "Eat everything that is put on your plate, do you know how many children are starving in the world and go to sleep without a single square meal?"

Hence the horror at the quantity of food left behind by my Egyptian guests. I was truly worried that even the hint of spices I had used, was too much for them. Fortunately my friend explained that to me.

Most Egyptian guests will bring over some kind of sweet dish, when invited to your house. A large cake, chocolates or pastries. Budget for these arrivals in your dessert plans. It is quite acceptable to offer the sweets that have been brought in by your guests at the dessert table at the same meal.

Another tip I have learned where food is concerned is that the serving of Shai (black tea) signals the end of the evening. So definitely offer your Egyptian guests some shai to end the meal. Not too quickly after dessert - that will imply that you are trying to get rid of them, but after a little time has passed. And if you have been served shai in an Egyptians house, then it is time to politely take your leave once the shai has been drunk.

and as mentioned in the article below, Egyptians are quite forgiving of khwagas (foreigners) who aren't completely aware of their social etiquette, so don't worry too much about being Emily Post :)
Table Manners in Egypt Follow Certain Rules;
Avoid the Evil Eye
May 22, 2008 12:16 p.m.

When it comes to table manners, the devil is in each culture's details. Eating with one's fingers may be considered slovenly in one place, but the norm in another. In Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, looking at a fellow diner's plate is considered to be rude.

Cairo native Amr Ragab explains that when someone stares at another person's food, he or she sends a signal of desire and envy. That act of acknowledging what another person owns can bring bad luck: the antidote is to offer to share. "I'm afraid if I don't give you any," says Mr. Ragab, "I'll get the evil eye."

Amy Riolo
Don't look: Staring at another person's food can bring the "evil eye."

The idea that attention to success can bring about failure is widespread in cultures from South and Central America to Asia and across the Middle East. The sudden misfortune that is said to come with this attention is commonly called the "evil eye." Tourists can often find kitschy amulets shaped like eyeballs and made of blue-and-white glass in Turkey, North Africa, Israel and the Persian Gulf. Their popularity may make the belief seem rather frivolous, but its roots are deep and its influence is still expressed in this detail of Egyptian dining etiquette.

Sometimes, though, it's hard not to look at what someone else has ordered.

"The way I do it, I look but I try not to stare at the plate," Mr. Ragab explains. "I'll look for a second but I won't let my eyes linger. If I get caught I'll say 'Ah, that looks nice!' "

At that point, the offer of food from the plate in question will most likely be extended, and a second, important part of the cultural practice comes into play.

"I know that if he's obliged to give me, I feel obliged to say no a couple of times," Mr. Ragab says. "You refuse it at least once and people even say twice, but you have to eventually take some, otherwise you're saying it's bad, you don't like it."

Amy Riolo, an American food historian who has studied Middle Eastern cuisine and is married to an Egyptian, remembers that it took her a few tries to get the hang of this modest back-and-forth exchange. "I would offer someone something and they would refuse and then I would take it back, but they were waiting for that third offer."

There is one paradox, though: While it is considered impolite to look at another's plate in a restaurant, it is acceptable to do so in the home. This is because the same food is shared and eaten family-style, says Mr. Ragab, so there is no comparison to wealth.

Whether the meal is at home or in a restaurant, never leave a clean plate. When dining as a guest in an Egyptian home, this is an especially important thing to remember. "If there isn't any more food on the table, then the assumption is that they haven't been generous enough," warns David Mack, a former who studied in Egypt before embarking on a 30-year career in the Foreign Service. "They may leave you sitting there while they desperately go to the neighbor's for something else."

A guest signals that he or she is full by leaving a little of each kind of food on the plate.

For the confused traveler, Egyptians thankfully have etiquette on etiquette: "Even though Egyptians have their own etiquette rules," says Ms. Riolo, "they're very gracious about letting foreigners bend them."

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