Though spoons may sometimes be provided for fairly liquid dishes. Everything is eaten with the fingers, using only the right hand, since the left is considered impure.
Have a look at the guests. If they serve themselves with their fingertips, they come from the north. If they pick up their food with their whole hand, they are certainly southerners. Good manners require that you pick food up slowly with the first three fingers of your right hand, without soiling them beyond the first knuckle. Bread is used as a utensil.
Generally all dishes are served at once, in a style called "thali." Thali are large round platters provided to each diner, containing all the foods for the meal: meat, poultry, legumes, vegetables in sauces, starches and accompaniments. In the north this large platter is made of metal, either brass, steel, copper or silver depending on the family's wealth or the kind of meal. In the south, and among rural dwellers (India is 50% agricultural), they make do with a large banana leaf. Delicate or semi-liquid dishes are placed in small bowls, katoris, often made from pottery, and placed on the thali. Grilled meats or fish and other "dry" foods are placed directly onto the platter in a set order. Thali is made up of numerous dishes, but for festivals, there are more katori:
- One or two meat or fish dishes, including one in sauce
- dry legumes (dal), typically lentils,
- green vegetables
- sauces including raita, meaning "iced", which takes in all dahi or yogurt-based sauces
- chutneys or pickles
- a rice dish in the south or bread in the north - the rice is never salted and so often you'll find a little salt and lime served on the side.
If you serve a pullao, a pilaf enhanced with raisins, almonds and spices, one of the rare rice dishes served in the north, it is traditional to perfume the dining room with saffron before eating it.
- Sometimes there are (very sweet) sweets…
Fruits don't always play the same culinary roles they do in western cooking. Figs, for example, are considered a vegetable and mangos and papayas are cooked like vegetables. Water chestnuts are eaten like candies and cucumber seeds make an excellent hors d'oeuvre.
During the meal, Indians don't drink, except perhaps for water poured into a metal goblet to keep it cool. It is important to always place it to the left of the thali, never to the right.
Sometimes dishes are placed in the center of the table. According to etiquette, guests should not serve themselves for the simple reason that their fingers would soil the handle of the serving spoon; therefore the mistress of the house watches attentively and refills the katoris as needed.
Nor is it acceptable to offer anything from your thali to your neighbor, even if it hasn't been touched… once the plate is in your possession, its contents become impure. However sometimes food may be shared between two people who are very close.
If during the meal you start to sneeze because of the spices, don't stop after the second or third achoo! You have to continue to five so that the gods forget your message to call you to the beyond. The numeral five is very powerful. There are five ingredients that make up the drink used as a remedy for sneezing: alcohol, water, sugar, lemon and cinnamon. If your table mate sneezes, don't say "bless you," but ignore him or do as the Brahmans do and cover your ears.
Salted lassi makes a good accompaniment to a meal. It is pasteurized milk that has been brought to a boil; once it's taken off the heat, lemon juice is added and it is left to sit overnight. The water that forms is mixed with dahi (yogurt with a pinch of salt), rose water, mint or coriander leaves.
Tea and coffee are practically always served outside of meals, in the morning or afternoon, with milk. When tea is served without milk, it tends to be grouped with herbal teas which are drunk very hot, and only in the evening to aid digestion, as prescribed by sacred texts.
Indians drink a lot of fruit juices, coconut water, diluted flower syrups and other refreshing beverages, sometimes salty and sweet at the same time, flavored with lemon or rose water (nimbou pani).
At the end of the meal, a small bowl of perfumed water, usually scented with roses, is presented to a guest so that he may rinse his fingers. Then comes the "paan" or betel chew ritual. The lady of the house opens a box containing fresh betel leaves, still moist, and another container containing various ingredients specially chosen for their digestive and aphrodisiac qualities: slivers of areca nuts, cardamom pods, cloves, green cumin seeds and even precious stones (which are said to increase virility) or silver or gold leaf. There is also a white lime paste extracted from sea shells such as oysters which heightens the flavor of the spices. Everyone place the betel leaf on the table, or better yet on his lap, and with the index and middle fingers of the right hand, assembles his own mixture, then folds the leaf into a triangle and puts it under his cheek. This is the ultimate way to end an Indian meal.
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