As we sit down for our Thanksgiving dinners around the country, I wanted to share with you my knowledge and experience of how Indian meals are served. You will find it is very similar to the way it is done in the U.S. with a bit more tradition. Enjoy your family and this day of thanks! Years ago the traditional Indian meal involved time honored ritual as well as a wide array of delicious food. Today much of the elegance has been put aside or reserved for special occasions due to the Westernization of many Indian households and busy working families.
When dining at someone’s home, the first thing you do is wash your hands since much of the food you will be served is eaten by hand. Usually you simply excuse yourself and head to the bathroom. Homes in India often have a bathroom style sink in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands. Don’t forget to wash your hands again right after eating.
For a traditional South Indian meal, the table would be set with pieces of banana leaves that had been cut from the tree just before the meal. Alternatively, South Indian thali meals are served in round stainless steel plates containing small bowls for each menu item. (I will tell you more about South Indian dining in a future post.) Most Indian families eat on Western-style pottery or China plates.
The hostess will serve the food to each guest starting with the rice that is placed at center of the leaf or plate. Next the dal (lentils) is placed by the rice. Vegetable dishes are placed around the plate. If the meal is non-vegetarian (includes any type of meat), these items are served last and are placed at the edge of the leaf or plate. Yogurt is served last. Breads are placed to the left and chutneys or pickles are placed along one of the edges. Water is the standard drink at Indian meals although wine and beer are served in restaurants and in some households.
Before you start eating, just look at your plate. Each of the dishes was selected for a specific reason: its flavor, spices, color, texture, etc. The appearance of the entire array of food must be a feast for the eyes and nose as well as the tongue. Not every dish in Indian cooking is a curry. The menu is comprised of curries (items with gravies) as well dishes with no gravy for variety. The cook has gone to a lot of work to present a culinary bonanza. Take a second to admire the display in front of you before digging in.
Food it eaten in the same order in which it was served. This is due to historical beliefs about nutrition and the best way to eat food: carbohydrates, protein, vegetables then fat. Taking a small piece of bread and scooping rice and just one other item onto it is the traditional way to eat Indian food. Taking just one item with the bread and rice allows the flavor of that dish to be tasted in its pure form without any mixing of flavors from other dishes. People often eat with the fingers of their right hand rather than using silverware. Of course, forks and spoons as well as napkins are commonly used today.
As you taste all of the offered delights, make a point of letting the hostess know how you appreciate all of the items, letting her know they are delicious and identifying your favorites. She spent a considerable amount of time in planning and preparing the feast. Positive feedback goes a long way in potentially getting a second invitation.
After you have sampled every dish that has been offered (and eaten) seconds and thirds, you should wait at the table until everyone has finished eating. Then the grand finale is served.
Indian desserts are usually very small. Either some fruit or an intensely sweet and rich item will be served. Western desserts are common. Based on my experience, most Indians have a sweet tooth and are happy to eat anything sweet.
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