A foreigner’s guide to traditional Indian dining etiquette
“Sigh. Kindly order quickly, many customer is waiting” is the official motto of The Association Of Waiters In Indian Restaurants. But don’t be fooled, dear foreigner – food is of critical importance to Indian people. Nothing binds Indians together more, and divides them more, than the belief that their specific type of Indian cuisine is not just the best in India, but is in fact the best cuisine in the world. The fact that there are billions of people all over the world who voluntarily choose to not eat Bengali food is a mystery to most Bengali people.
But to get at the good stuff you need to graduate from the crappy Vindaloos and the Tikka Masalas that are dished out in Indian restaurants, and get yourself invited to an Indian family’s home. The traditional, polite and formal way to do this is to show up around any meal-time on a holiday. If they know you, it might be a little easier to make small talk – but the food will be good in either case.
The hosts will insist that “arre, it‘s nothing”, but here’s a secret: most of the items that will be offered to you have taken more effort to prepare than the average presidential speech in your home country – so you want to get your etiquette right, which is precisely the point of this guide.
Getting started with your meal
The meal starts when, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary conversation, one of the hosts exclaims something along the lines of “Chalo, let’s eat!”. This moment will almost certainly catch you off-guard, but your response to this suggestion must be one of moderate enthusiasm, so as to suggest that you are hungry enough to eat a full meal. It helps if you haven’t already stuffed yourself with the approximately 9000 calories of fried appetizers that were offered to you earlier.
But, before approaching the source of the aromas in the dining area, go to the restroom, because you need to wash your hands. An open “washing area”, a.k.a. “basin”, might have been placed near the dining area for this specific purpose. You should use that, unless your hand washing technique includes unmentionable actions that need the privacy of a fully enclosed restroom. Starting to eat without washing your hands is like attending a job interview with your fly open – everyone will notice, but no one will tell you.
After washing your hands, it is safest to wait for someone else to show you where to sit. This prevents you from being in the situation where you’re sitting cross-legged on the floor (like the Wikipedia page suggests) while everyone else stares at you from the dining table that you failed to notice.
Now, you might have assumed that the host and hostess are the only people in the house. Do not be startled if you discover that both sets of parents of the hosts, several aunts, a few neighbors and enough maids to invade a small Eastern European country are involved in preparing the meal in the kitchen. Acknowledge their presence without looking overwhelmed. And if you’re worried that you’d have to invite all these people to your house for dinner next, don’t – they don’t think of you as a peer, you’re more like a culinary refugee to them.
Also, many of the people involved in preparing the meal might not actually sit with you for the meal. Instead, they might prefer to make fresh rotis, hover around you, dissect your marital life (or lack thereof), and serve you food without warning – this is normal, so just relax and start eating!
The main meal
Now you are ready to eat. First, some technique. Make sure to only use your fingers (right hand only – yes, even if you are left-handed!) to tear a bite-sized piece of roti. If necessary, practice this in advance: work up your way from a soft phulka to the tough, prison-grade rotis an amateur Indian cook might prepare. Remember – a lot of the cook’s fragile ego (and in some unfortunate cases, the basis of their marriage) rests on their ability to prepare a roti that is breakable with your fingers, so do not let them down.
A roti must only be used to scoop up other food. Eating just a dry roti reduces your status from “clueless foreigner” down to “there are several pets in India who know better”. Proper scooping technique involves making a boat-like shape with the roti, scooping up the curry without letting too much of the curry touch your fingers, and inserting the food into your mouth before anything spills out of the “boat”.
Make sure you plan your roti consumption so that the last piece of roti is used to scoop up the last piece of vegetable or curry. If you finish everything else, and are just left with half a roti, the only way out is to ask for a little more vegetable curry. But then, if you are left with just some vegetable curry without any roti, you could be forced to ask for more roti. This can cause an infinite loop. Even worse, it makes you look like your intuitive sense of Math is poorer than that of an Indian toddler.
(If you are eating a roti-free, rice-based meal, there are no rules. Just mix everything together and dig in to the rice, all the way up to your elbows! Ha ha! No, just kidding – there are several rules! But, we are not sure what the rules are, exactly.)
There could be about 3-4 preparations that will compete for your first scoop with the roti. Choose wisely, because you are (literally) dipping your fingers into stormy political waters here. It could be, for instance, that the host’s parents helped prepare the yellow potato curry, while the dry okra was prepared by the hostess herself. Your choice of the first bite could affect meal preparation in this household for the next decade or six. (You already know not to let your face go red and reach for the water after the first bite, right?)
No matter how you choose your first bite, make sure you say something like “wow, that’s pretty tasty!” soon after you finish chewing your first bite. Repeat that for each new entrée you taste. Do not wait till the end of the meal to compliment the nonchalant-looking team of cooks – the wait is torturous for them, but they will never let it show.
After your meal, if your spouse is absent, you might even offer the ultimate Indian dining compliment – “I wish I had delicious food like this at my wedding!” This will cause the cooks to feel a tangy, sweet-and-sour combination of pity for you and joy for the culinary coup d’état that has just occurred.
Never ask for the recipe. It’s not like the recipe is a secret, but casually asking for a recipe that is the product of approximately 6,000 years of advanced human civilization, requires you to speak several Indian languages in addition to Sanskrit, and needs unemployment to soar to at least 25% so you can afford the labor force required to assist you, makes you look like an idiot. Also, under no circumstances must you compare home-cooked food to restaurant fare, North Indian food to South Indian food, Tamilian food to Andhra food, or Bengali food to any sort of food.
The meal ends when you’re unable to eat any more. The hosts will egg you on to eat more, if necessary with sexual-sounding innuendo like “Just a little bit more”, or “Oh, don’t be shy!”, but at some point, you just can’t do it any more. So you stop. Make sure your plate is empty – don’t forget to finish whatever is there in the approximately 19 small bowls that surround your plate.
There you have it. Oh, we forgot to remind you to wash your hands after the meal – but, chances are, you guessed that already. Congratulations on a successful meal. You now have a window of opportunity of about 30 minutes to leave, before you get invited for the next meal.
PS: A quick word about vegetarianism
If you are a non-vegetarian who’s invited to eat with a vegetarian family, do not discuss vegetarianism. Unlike non-Indian vegetarians you might have encountered, most Indian vegetarians don’t think of vegetarianism as a lifestyle choice. They just don’t think of meat as food, in the same sense as you would not think of sharp pieces of glass as food. So there is nothing to discuss.