Cultural Adaptation - Eating

By Jameela, 17 June, 2014

Part of adapting to life in a new country consists in discovering, learning and understanding the way other people live. Even the simplest task of everyday life can seem a whole different from what we are used to.  In the following article, discover the habits and table manners of Libyan people so next time you can act and feel like a local.

Let’s make something clear from the start, when I suggest you can act and feel like a local, it’s got nothing to do with mimicking or pretending. It’s all about living smoothly in a multi cultural world. I know… that’s deep right? More seriously, this is the way I see things:

CURIOSITY leads to DISCOVERY and if you try to UNDERSTAND then it is easier to TOLERATE

So how can you behave like a good house guest next time you’re invited over for food in a Libyan family? By the way what works for Libya will most definitely work in Tunisia and most of the Arab world. If your host wants to please you, they may set things up so that lunch or dinner looks like what you’re used to back home like sitting at a table and eating with forks and knives or else they may take you in as a member of the family and invite you to share a meal the way they do. In that case get ready for some cultural difference.

Low Table:

Many families don’t use high tables and chairs to eat they will either spread a cloth on the floor or use a very low table, even lower than a coffee table so you can comfortably reach your food from a sitting position. I personally use this at home I find it way more practical than high tables and IT saves you the headache of finding enough chairs when loads of people turn up.

Sharing the main dish:

Another common practice is for food to be served in a large dish and for everyone to eat from the same dish. There is a specific table manner when eating this way: people are supposed to eat on their side of the dish and choose from what is directly in front of them. This makes sense to keep things clean and so that everybody eats their share. And don’t worry young children are usually given a separate dish when they are not yet at an age where they can eat without making a mess.

Eating with your hands:

While forks, spoons and knives are easily available many people prefer to eat with their hands. Again there are some basic rules to follow. Always wash your hands before sitting down for food (I guess you knew that) and then eat with your right hand, and only your right hand (you can hold large items with both hands but only put food or drink in your mouth with the right one). In Arab countries, people follow Islamic etiquette which is to eat with your right hand and clean yourself in the toilet with your left hand.

It takes some time to be comfortable eating with your hands, it is not as easy as it seems. Try to use only 3 fingers it’s easier. Two fingers to scoop or push the food around, the thumb to grasp it and then move your thumb behind the lump of food to push it into your mouth. Or else you can politely ask for a spoon, no one will take offense I promise.

Separate dining areas for men and women:

In some families, when there are guests for lunch or dinner, men and women will not sit together but rather they will usually settle in different rooms. In Muslim countries men and women who are not closely related don’t mix freely so you may find yourself separated from your other half during lunch. Children are allowed on both sides and usually make the best out of both worlds. They also play messengers between the 2 sides, especially when it is time to leave.

Three times a guest…

According to Islamic etiquette you are treated as a guest in someone’s house three times after that you are considered a friend. That means the first three times you are not expected to help out, to set the table or carry dishes. Hospitality is taken very seriously in the Arab world so it’s best to let them treat you like an honoured guest the first times. After that if you are invited again feel free to offer your assistance before, during and after the meal, it will be accepted and you’ll be made to feel as if you’re part of the family.

Eat your fill:

If you want to make your host very happy then don’t stop eating until you’re full. This is proof that the hostess is a good cook and it shows the hosts that they have done their duties well. It would be a source of terrible shame for an Arab host to send their guests away still hungry so don’t be shy, fill up your plate, finish it and go for a second helping of everything.


In the Arab world, burping at the end of a meal is not considered rude or gross. It is actually a good sign. Like I said above, hospitality is something very serious and a guest burping at the end is a foolproof way to show they have eaten well. You don’t have to do it off course but don’t be shocked if others do. Like eating with your hands, this is another table manner that is at the other extreme of what is considered acceptable in some other cultures.

What should you expect on the table?

Libya is a Muslim country so no pork or alcohol. For the rest they don’t eat anything “funny”. They eat a lot of fish, chicken and lamb, camel meat too (a red meat close to beef but a little tough if not cooked properly). Dishes are very often cooked in tomato sauce, cucumber and tomato salad is a common side dish, they like spicy food with red and green chillies, it can even be very hot be careful. You may also be offered Shorba at the beginning (a kind of vegetable and meat soup, but not quite like a soup, you can eat it as well as drink it). Traditionally you’ll be offered a cup of hot mint tea or Arabic coffee at the end of the meal.

Jameela Deen is a travel blogger who aims to help others through her posts. She welcomes questions from readers and is happy to help if you are considering moving, living and working abroad. 

'I'm a Serial Expat... next time i move will be followed by another time after that. I'm here to help you if you'd like to move, live and work abroad. I write alot about Libya where I live now as well as all the other countries that I've lived in or visited.'

Diary of a Serial Expat