Etiquette of Indian dining
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As in many cultures, proper habits of eating and drinking are very important. Dining etiquette is widely respected in parts of Indian culture, local customs, traditions, and religions. Proper table manners vary from culture to culture, although there are always a few basic rules that are important to follow. Etiquette should be observed when dining in any Indian household or restaurant, though the acceptable standards depend upon the situation.
The usage of spoons and forks is prevalent in the urban areas of North India, and food like curry or vegetables is generally not touched with the hands. When flatbreads such as chapati, roti, or naan are served with the meal, it is acceptable to use pieces of them to gather food and sop up gravies and curries. In South India, it is considered ill mannered to let one's food stain the outside of their fingers or palm while eating, and food is to be eaten only with the tips of the fingers.
Not all Indian foods should be eaten with the hands, however. If the food is soupy, such as many daals, spoons can be used. Additionally, foods such as rice may be eaten with spoons in both North India and South India, more so in case of formal occasions as in a restaurant or a buffet. In South India, where the practice of eating food from a banana leaf is still observed, it is acceptable to eat using spoons sometimes/only on rare occasions.
Traditional Indian cutlery does not recognise the use of spoons, forks and knives while eating, limiting their use to the kitchen only. Spoons (for serving) were made of wood in ancient times, evolving into metallic spoons (for serving) during the advent of the use of the thali, the traditional dish on which Indian food is served. Spoons and forks are commonly used to distribute foods from a communal dish, as it is considered rude to touch the foods of others.
Contamination with saliva
The concept of "uchchishtam" (Sanskrit), "engili" (Telugu), "entho" (Bengali), "aitha" (Odia), "jutha" (in North India), "ushta" (in Maharashtra), "echchil" (Tamil), "echil" (Malayalam), "enjalu" (Kannada) in India is a common belief. It can refer to the food item or the utensils or serving dishes, that has come in contact with someone's mouth, or saliva or the plate while eating — something that directly or indirectly came in contact with one's saliva. It can also refer to leftover food. It is considered extremely rude and unhygienic to offer someone food contaminated with saliva. It is, however, not uncommon in India for spouses, or extremely close friends or family, to offer each other such contaminated food and is not considered disrespectful under such circumstances. In certain cases, as in the first lunch by the newly-weds, sharing food from each other's plates may be thought of as an indication of intimacy.
Cattle in general are considered sacred animals by Hindus, and so are not consumed by Hindus. Hence beef is not readily available in most restaurants in India. However, beef is eaten by some people in the North Eastern states (where the culture and weather patterns are very distinct from the rest of India) and Kerala. In West Bengal, beef is not easily available but pork is. Most Indian Christians and Indian Muslims eat beef, as it is not considered sacred in their religions, however, a minority—non-beef eating Indian Christians and Indian Muslims—do not consume beef as they most likely consider this an Indian cultural aspect and not a religious one. Fast food and chain based restaurants in India do not serve beef. Meats such as chicken, goat and lamb are served, and seafood such as fish are served.
Muslims in India do not eat pork due to the teachings of Islam, and Indian Hindus also do not eat pork in general (which Westerners find surprising, as they think Hindus only avoid beef). However, some Indian Hindus consume pork. For example, in Goa, pork vindaloo is a popular dish, and the Kodagu district of Karnataka is known for its spicy pork curries. Nothing is explicitly stated about the non-consumption of pork in Hindu texts and scriptures — it is more a custom rooted in Indian culture and beliefs. It is believed that there is a high incidence of disease and parasites in pigs. The consumption of pork is considered unhygienic. The other reason for the non-consumption of pork in India and by Indians abroad is the cultural custom (explained above) — generations of Indians have grown up not eating pork; the cultural beliefs have been passed onto them. The chances are that they will not eat pork later on, because they are not used to it and its taste. The Indians who consume pork could be of Christian faith, or it could be a part of their local culture and cuisine (e.g. Goa and Kodagu district), or it is simply a personal choice. Indians who consume pork are usually Indians born abroad in Western countries, and Westernised generations of Indians. Indian restaurants in Western countries might include pork dishes in their menus because it is extremely popular in the form of bacon in those countries. Indian restaurants in the Western world will never include beef dishes, because it is diametrically opposite to Hindu teachings.
It is unclear whether Indian Christians living in India eat pork. Indian Christians may consume pork when it is available – e.g. at restaurants which offer pork dishes. However, it is quite rare for pork to be available at restaurants, as the demand is very limited, but it is available in a minority of restaurants in main cities. If that is the case, pork is usually available in city central eateries which serve Western dishes, located in main cities.
- Irrespective of whether one consumes food using cutlery or with their hand (typically the right hand), one is expected to wash hands before and after partaking food. During the course of the meal, cleaning one's eating hand with a cloth or paper tissue is considered unhygienic, though with the advent of restaurant dining, it is becoming more acceptable. One may be asked to wash their hands before and after sitting down to a meal.
- It is customary to share food with anyone who wants it.
- It is rude for one's host to not offer guests food multiple times.
- Similarly, it is expected that one should not leave the table before the host or until the eldest person has finished their food.
- It was not traditional to use dining napkins or paper tissues while eating, however, this is now the case in most of North India. In South India, an unfolded long towel on right shoulder is a tradition, which can be used to wipe one's hands after washing. However, this is mostly followed only on formal occasions.
- It is not necessary to taste each and every dish prepared, but one should finish everything on the plate as it is considered a respect for served food, and food is sacred. For this reason, one should take only as much food on the plate as they can finish. However, this is not general phenomenon. Depending on the family or community, one can leave the leftover food on the plate if they cannot eat any more. Also, at many places, someone insisting someone to try a dish or serving special dishes in excess, is considered as a sign of their affection towards them.
- Playing with food or in any way distorting the food is unacceptable. Eating at a medium pace is important, as eating too slowly may imply that you dislike the food, whereas eating too quickly is rude.
- In some parts of India, if a diner finishes earlier than the rest, they may need to wait until everyone has finished to wash their hands. It may be considered rude to leave the table. Sometimes, it may be acceptable for the diner who has finished to wash their hands, however, they are expected to return to the dining area immediately after. In most parts it is acceptable to leave after the elders have finished. This practice, like most others, is still prevalent in India.
- If a meal is served over banana leaves (in South India) then it is customary to fold the leaves from the top at the end of the meal (if folded from the bottom, it means the relationship with the host is broken). This is to note the host that one has finished eating.
- Courses in Indian meals depend on the area. North India has one course and desserts. Gujaratis have a roti course with desserts, followed by a rice course. In South India and East India, where meals are mostly rice based, orderly servings of accompaniments make various courses. The thali course is very common in South India; the vegetarian thali is a very typical, commonplace lunchtime meal in Tamil Nadu vegetarian eateries and canteens (and South India in general), and is a popular lunch choice.
- In various communities, various etiquette may prevail for indicating the end of a meal. For Marwaris, the guest must explicitly ask for papad, for Gujaratis, the guest must ask for rice. Sometimes in South India, serving buttermilk by the host indicates the end of a meal.
- Food has to be consumed by one hand only (with the exception of Punjab), and with the right hand only.
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