Leave these western ways behind when dining in Asia

The first time I sat down for a real Chinese banquet, on assignment to frigid Manchuria back in 1988, I found myself confronted first with a heaped serving dish of deep-fried, whole baby sparrows.

How did I grab one of these with a chopstick or dissect bone from flesh without making a fool of myself? Next came one large boiled tortoise, the first and last I would ever attempt to devour. Still hungry, I was relieved when the main course turned out to be a recognisably delectable, if massive, whole fish.

I was just about to dig in when my government hosts boasted that it had been farmed in the run-off water from the nearest nuclear power plant.

Having lived in Asia for 16 years, I know that relocating to the Orient from Europe, the US or Australia can often leave one thoroughly disoriented - especially when it comes to navigating the dining experience. Each country's offerings and etiquette are challenging and varied. Even before the meal starts, the distant bow expected by Japanese hosts may cause offence to Chinese seeking the modern-day respect of a brisk, if not too firm, handshake.

Consuming dishes with confidence in Asia begins not just with peanuts or jellyfish appetizers, but also with the realisation that no two cuisines on the continent - or means to devour them- are quite alike. Here, getting one's fill is not as important as getting a feel for varying culinary customs.

In part, that's due to the traditional significance food plays in these societies, where certain edibles have long connoted family, pride of place and especially status. "For starters, always familiarise yourself with the local specialities," said Paul Harrison, a longtime sales executive for General Electric medical equipment.

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