Eat Like an Arab!
The Arab World consists of 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa which all boast rich histories that are steeped in traditions and long held values. Although there has been more Western influence in recent decades, it is still largely a world of its own, but if you want to get to know a country or culture intimately, what better way than through food!? Dining in the Arab World is a communal bonding process but it’s crucial to know that some behaviors and practices are different than what you would expect in the West, especially when it comes to dining etiquette. Let’s take a look at what you can expect when dining in the Arab World so you can make a good impression when you’re invited!
The Basics of Table Manners, Seating, and Cutlery:
Whether you are dining at a restaurant or at home, you should never presume to seat yourself because everyone will have a predetermined place at the table. Generally, the most honored person, usually the host or eldest male, will be seated at the middle of the table with the second most honored person to be seated next to them. The person in the middle will usually be flanked on either side by other honored guests or prominent family members in descending order of importance with the least important person sitting farthest from the middle or the ends of the table often closest to the door. You should also be prepared that in some more traditional homes, you might be asked to sit on a carpet on the floor at a very low table.
Depending on which Arab nation you’re dining in, most meals will normally begin with guests saying “Sahtain” which roughly translates to ‘double health’; it is a wish for you to enjoy your food before and after eating it, kind of like bon apetit. Another common saying you might hear before a meal are “Bismillah” (in the name of God). When the meal is over, guests should say, “Daimah”, which means ‘may there always be plenty at your table’, or “Hamdullah”, thanking God for the meal.
As far as cutlery goes, it is not an essential or required component of Arab dining because most foods can be eaten with your hands or by using breads to wipe up sauces. That being said, it’s extremely important that you visibly wash your hands before sitting down to eat. Many bigger cities in the Arab world will commonly use utensils; generally, using spoons is more common than forks but it will depend on the meal and your host. Regardless of whether you’re eating with your hands or with a utensil, you should never use your left hand for eating because it is seen as unclean. This is because, in Arab tradition, the left hand is for cleaning the body after going to the toilet. Therefore, even if you are left-handed, you should use your right hand.
If you are an honored guest in someone’s home, you are not expected to make a statement or toast, but it is appropriate and polite to offer a small compliment. It will typically be appreciated and dismissed as unnecessary, but you should still do so in a sincere manner . An appropriate comment would be to wish for the health of the host and all those present, and an appropriate time would be at the end of the meal.
Last but not least, it’s extremely important that you say thank you before and after your dinner which is not only polite in a general sense, but is seen as critical in the Arab world. Your host has spent time and effort cooking for you, or hosting you, and you must show your appreciation by thanking them accordingly.
Food and Drink:
Quite often you will find that there is too much food on the table and that the cook has over-prepared but don’t worry, this is tradition and the leftovers will be given to those in need. During the meal, it is customary for the host to offer guests more food at least two or three times in the form of a ritual known as uzooma. When the host asks you if you’d like more food, first you refuse, then the host insists, then you refuse again, then the host insists again, and then you finally give in and take a little more. After you finish your meal, ensure that you leave a little food on your plate since eating all your food within Arab culture could signify that you were not served enough. After a meal is finished, many at the table may belch, as this is seen as a sign of enjoyment and thanks to the chef.
It’s important for your health to strictly avoid drinking tap water or having ice with any of your drinks anywhere in the region. You should drink only bottled water, water that has been thoroughly boiled and distilled, or brewed tea, coffee and soft drinks. Although you aren’t drinking the tap water, you must still consider that most of the region is desert so water use is a serious concern in this part of the world and use water conservatively and only when needed. Fresh fruits and vegetables should also be avoided and a good rule of thumb is to eat only what is cooked.
Your meal will generally end with tea or coffee which can sometimes be boiling hot; you should just wait to let it cool because it can be seen as rude to blow on it. Most of the time, tea is served with milk and sugar and is sometimes spiced so you should always try it first before adding sugar yourself. Even if you only plan to take a few sips, you should always accept the offer of tea or coffee as it is rude to refuse and will likely offend your host.
Regardless of what you are drinking, whether it is water, juice, tea, or coffee, you should remember to never pour yourself a drink and always remain alert to your neighbors cup when it is half empty; in Arab tradition, it is customary for your neighbor to fill your cup and for you to fill theirs. If your neighbor is preoccupied, don’t refill it yourself as this will cause your neighbor or host to lose face. Instead, diplomatically indicate your need by pouring a little more drink into their cup, even if they don’t need it.
Gender and Dining:
In the Arab World, men and women eating may also dine in separate areas in more traditional homes and establishments, and in some cases may spend the entire evening separated. It might also be customary for men and women to eat at separate times, with the men dining first.
It is especially important that if men and women are dining together that women not directly touch food that is being served to a Muslim male, other than those who are her immediate relatives because to do so makes it impure in the eyes of some observant Muslims.
Restricted Foods, Smoking, and Alcohol:
Typically, beer and other alcoholic drinks are not served, especially in traditional homes and establishments. In come cities you may find alcohol on the menu, but if your guests or those you are dining with are not drinking, then you should do the same as this is polite. Common beverages that you may be served include fruit juices and lemonades, along with tea, coffee and water.
Pork will definitely not be on the menu almost everywhere in this entire region because the Quran forbids that pigs should be eaten or anything from pig skin should be touched. This includes anything with gelatine in it, like lard, so be careful with the ingredients that you select if you are hosting, and avoid asking your host for things that may contain pork.
The practice of smoking is ubiquitous throughout most of the region. Usually, you do not smoke until the meal is over. In addition, at the end of some meals, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, incense or cologne might be passed around as a final refreshment. If your hosts offers this, you should lean over and gently inhale the sweet fragrance instead of taking a harsh inhale. Fresh mints or caraway seeds may also be offered as a special treat just before you go.
The late world renowned chef and global foodie Anthony Bourdain once said, “you learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together” and this could not be more true when trying to learn about Arab culture. Famous for their hospitality and generosity, Arabs will graciously invite you into their home to share a delicious meal with them, and now you know how to behave appropriately to ensure you make an excellent first impression!