Indian dining etiquette

By 13:53

When it comes to choosing food to eat, Indian is no doubt my favourite cuisine. I just love the addition of spices prepared in so many ways to transform simple ingredients into delicious meals that you cannot get enough of. I love the deep fried snacks, the softness of rotis and other breads. It amazes me how many people share my love of Indian food and yet know so little about the etiquette that comes with eating it. Western table manners seem to be common knowledge. We all know how to set a table, which utensils to eat with what, how to pair different food items and when to eat certain foods. So here’s my guide to getting people up to speed with Indian table manners.

Everyone knows the Western formal table setting

Hows this for an Indian "table" setting

Eating with your hands
I eat almost all my food with my hands. I am met with surprise and disbelief at how I do it. It’s pretty easy when you were raised eating with the cutlery you were born with – your hands. People think that eating rice with your hands is just not possible. My response is that Indians farmed rice long before the concept of cutlery was introduced to them so they’ve mastered the art. When eating with your hands, it is restricted to your right hand only. Your left hand is kept clean so that you can dish more food from the clean spoons in the serving dishes or to grab your drink with. Indian food is soft enough to break food into small morsels and scoop it together with your fingertips only. This is super important! Even though you’re eating with your hands, only your fingertips ever get stained with food. Eating with roti or any other bread is even easier. Break off a small piece of the bread and use it to pick up some curry with your roti. You shouldn’t even get your hands messed with the curry when you eat roti.

Cleaning your hands
Because you’re eating with your hands, you want to make sure that your hands are clean. All Indian restaurants and households are very accommodating for anyone wishing to use the bathroom to wash their hands before food arrives. In some restaurants, I actually ask for a finger bowl before eat. After your meal, the Western concept of just wiping your hands on a serviette is considered unclean. And to be honest, it’s a lot more hygienic to wash your hands afterwards too.

Indians usually serve one course. It could be a variety of curries, rice and breads. Eat to your heart’s desire. Sometimes, dessert will be informally served. So all those starters you see at an Indian restaurant’s menu is more of our snack list. In an Indian household, those starter dishes will be served at tea time and not as an appetiser from the Western concept of a 3 course meal.

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The only deviation to this is the Gujarati meals. I love this more so in a formal setting. My husband’s family serve a sweet appetiser to waken the taste buds. It’s then on to a roti course where whatever bread served is eaten with a curry – generally a dish that is more dry-ish than gravy-ish. On to my favourite course – the rice course served with a gravy-ish curry. To end the meal: dessert.

Some Indian households will serve a number of curry dishes. Again, it’s not really the Western concept of tasting everything that’s on the table. You’d probably be fine eating a maximum of 2 or 3 curries. Just be sure that you dish a little so that you can finish everything on your plate. If you like more food, dish a little more on to your plate. (See why you need to keep that left hand clean now.) It is rather rude to waste food. Even if you’re in a restaurant, dish from the main serving dish on to your plate. If you really can’t finish everything, DO NOT put food from your plate back into the main serving dish. That’s when jutha comes into play.

This is the concept of touching a utensil or food to one’s mouth or saliva. It’s considering unhygienic to drink from a glass or bite into an apple and then it with someone else. So if you’re eating with your hands or even a spoon, it’s touched your mouth and putting it back into your food is contaminating your meal. This is fine if you’re the only one eating but if you can’t finish your food someone else might not be too keen on wanting to eat your contaminated remnants. Keep the food that you are not eating clean.

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Mixing your food
There are a lot of Western meals where you would mix your food together before eating – like pasta and sauce. There’s no need to do that with Western food. Just eat from one corner mixing a little bit of curry with your rice. If you’ve got a number of curries on your plate, it’s nice to keep them separate so you can taste each one.

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A predominantly vegetarian cuisine
A lot of Indians are vegetarian and the ones that aren’t restrict themselves to vegetarian meals on religious and celebratory occasions. As such, if you’re invited to an Indian household for a feast don’t be that rude ignorant person that asks for the meat and looks on disapprovingly at the delicious beans curry served. Learn from this and be an informed person and decline the invitation if you really can’t handle a meal with no meat, poultry, eggs or fish.

A guest’s respect
When visiting an Indian home, you can be guaranteed that a host will go out of their way to prepare a meal for you even if you pitch up unannounced. However, it is considered rude for a guest to just assume they will be getting a meal. So when visiting, be sure to bring something with you – even if it’s just a packet of biscuits. The host will greatly appreciate it if they don’t have something that they easily offer for welcoming snacks to go with tea.

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A host’s hospitality
Hosts want to have people over for a meal even if it’s modest food that is prepared. Respect that by eating enough and compliment the chef. Don’t be surprised if the host forcibly dishes more food for you or packs a container of leftover food for you to take home. The host just wants to make sure that you are well fed and enjoying yourself. If you don’t wish to eat more or take any food home, politely decline. 

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The social side to it
Remember that dining is a social activity. Eat slowly and savour your food. Talk to your fellow diners. And if you’re done first, don’t be in a rush to leave the table. Wait for everyone else.

I was hoping to find a video online showing how to eat with your hands but I found this instead that I thought was quite funny about why Indians eat with their hands.

And with that, I think you are sufficiently armed with enough information to enjoy an Indian meal the way it was intended. And if you’re ever invited to an Indian’s home, you’ll do great to impress and not offend them.

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