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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As you may have read in a previous post, I am now in the process of discovering Indian fusion cuisine. I stumbled upon it last year while preparing a dinner party. One of the recipes I had selected was a traditional Italian soup but by the time it reached the table, several popular Indian spices and a few Indian cooking techniques had infiltrated it. My husband loved what I had done and a new direction had been set. However, I enjoy musical fusion as well…


I recently received a link from John Wubbenhorst to music that he thought I might enjoy since I love anything related to flutes and flute music. I was hooked when he titled the email “What if J. S Bach had gone to India?” and had to learn more.


His link described a piece called, “Facing Beloved” on his Facing East CD as east/west fusion music that integrated a bit of one of my all time favorite Bach sonatas played on a North Indian bansuri flute with traditional Indian rhythms performed by two South Indian percussionists. This music is a fusion on many levels, not just eastern drumming with a western melody but also North and South Indian musical styles and techniques. After listening to the song, I had to hear more. Check out his CDs.

John Wubbenhorst's CD facing east blends eastern and western music.

John Wubbenhorst’s CD facing east blends eastern and western music.


His compositions reached me not just because of the musical beauty but by the fusion aspects as well. In some pieces I heard lively jazz rhythms, reflective melodies and contemporary styles all on one CD. The music would be great background music as I write blog entries, create new fusion recipes or chill out with my family at the end of a long day.


Thank you, John, for your amazing musical fusions!


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I just read an article in the paper that said that Starbucks plans on opening 50 coffee outlets in India by the end of 2012. I knew that coffee houses were becoming popular there largely due to the rising level of disposable income of India’s young professional set and the broad reach of the internet but this is huge! Can you imagine the people of the Indian subcontinent becoming Starbucks addicts?


This will be a joint venture between Starbucks and Tata Global Beverages. Both companies bring many strengths to this partnership. Starbucks with its marketing wizardry; Tata with its market and local knowledge as well as the roasted local coffee beans to be provided by Tata Coffee Ltd. I think I should buy stock in both companies now as I expect the profits will go through the roof. The name of the stores will be called Tata Starbucks Coffee: A Tata Alliance.


The interesting thing about this move is that most north Indians drink tea, not coffee. In south India, people have been drinking rich filter coffee in addition to tea for years. Even though Starbucks will bring its Tazo tea line to the partnership in the shops with its Awake tea (unidentified tea blend from Sri Lanka, Kenya as well as India), I don’t think they will be successful in attracting the Indian tea drinkers who are very sophisticated in their tastes for English Breakfast and Darjeeling tea which are actually grown in India. See my post, A Voyage with Indian Tea, that focuses on tea grown in India.


With the first store targeted to open in September, I will keep my eyes peeled to see how successful this venture turns out to be.  Stay tuned…





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“Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage.”  ~Catherine Douzel


With spring trying to poke its head out from under winter, I am dedicating this installment to my favorite cold weather drink. I drink it every afternoon especially late in the day as the temperature seems to fall as evening comes. This wonderful yet simple drink seems to warm me up all the way to my toes.


Let the voyage to India begin…


The word “tea” is synonymous with “India” since it is the largest producer of tea in the world today, growing a quarter of the world’s tea. (China is second.) India has been growing tea for more than 2500 years. The Ramayana, the ancient Hindu story about the adventures of the Hindu deity, Rama, mentioned that tea was consumed during those times, approximately 500 years BC.


Assam tea from India is ready to be added to the pot for a fresh cup of tea.

Assam tea from India is ready to be added to the pot for a fresh cup of tea.

Tea requires a hot and humid tropical climate with acidic soil to grow. In India it grows abundantly on the hills in north and east side of the country. Traditionally, tea leaves were picked by hand but machines pick the bulk of the tea today. The method of harvesting the leaves today is based on the terrain and the type of leaves grown. For centuries it was grown and consumed locally. With the arrival of the British East India Company in the 1820s, large areas of land were converted to tea plantations to supply tea to the rest of the world. More than two thirds of the tea that is grown in India today is still consumed within its borders.

India is known for its black tea but, keeping with current trends, now grows green, white and oolong teas due to increased popularity and heath benefits. India is now the second largest producer of green tea.
Many of the most popular varieties of Indian tea are grown in India. Assam, Darjeeling and Niligri are the most popular.


Assam is the name of the largest and most beautiful tea-growing region in the world, located on high on a plateau in the north of India along the Brahmaputra River in the state by the same name. It is also the name of the tea that is grown there. The tea from this area has a bold, strong flavor so it is traditionally served in the morning. English Breakfast Tea, made popular by Queen Victoria in the 19th Century, is a popular blend with a large percentage of Assam tea.


Darjeeling is one of the most popular teas in the world. It is grown in northeast India in the state of West Bengal along the Himalayas. The tea that is grown here has a delicate flavor so ‘Champagne of teas’, it is never blended with other teas because it would loose its special flavor. Some of the best Darjeeling tea is grown right around the town by the same name. My husband’s favorite is Orange Pekoe that is a variety of Darjeeling Tea.
In the southwest corner of India, the states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu grow tea along the Niligri Mountains, translated as the Blue Mountains due to the fog and clouds that surround the mountains that give them a blue cast. This tea is called Niligri tea. With its mild and clean flavor, it is often blended with other teas.
Other regions in India grow tea as well but do not have the level of production or popularity. These are:
  • Terai and Dooars along the Himalayas south of Darjeeling,
  • the Cachar district in the state of Assam in north India,
  • Dehradun in the state of Uttarakhand in north India,
  • Manipur a state in northeast India,
  • Kangra on the western Himalayas, and
  • Travancore, a region at the southern tip of the state of Kerala.

I hope you enjoyed our voyage around India to find the perfect cup of tea. Next year I plan to travel to some new parts of India and visit a tea plantation first hand.

Let me know your favorite!

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Kerala saris are usually made of cotton by hand weavers.  Called Kasavu saris, they are white or ivory fabric with a colorful border. Kasavu is the name of the simple or elaborate gold brocade border which is uniquely identifiable and simply beautiful. 


Kerala ladies in traditional dress.

Kerala ladies in traditional dress.

The national dress of Kerala women is the mundu-veshti. The mundu is wrapped around the waist like a skirt while the veshti is wrapped around the waist and the left shoulder. At a glance, it looks like a sari. The borders of both pieces have the same color(s) and design. A coordinating blouse, as with a sari, is worn underneath and purchased separately. Special mundu-veshti sets are available with wide gold lace borders which are usually worn by a bride for her wedding.


The lovely ladies I met at the Spice Shop in Kochi were wearing the traditional Kerala saris on the day that I met them. In the photo to the right, they are Kiran Devi, Sindhya, Daisy, Sheeba and Naufia.

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Now that I have told you about the different fabrics for saris, let me give you more information about the many types of silks that make these exquisite garments.


Kanchipuram saris

Kanchipuram saris (called Conjeevaram saris in Malayalam) are woven on hand looms in the town of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. These are the most popular and considered to be the ultimate in beauty and elegance with the exquisite gold threads that are woven through the borders. When you feel the fabric, you know it is top of the line material. The body and borders traditionally appear in contrasting colors making them distinctive. Since the fabric is very durable, they can be washed at home as well as dry-cleaned. There are two grades of these saris: the expensive ones are very popular for wedding dresses and special occasions and the other priced for daily wear, typically worn by mature women.


Various Indian saris

Various Indian saris


Banaras saris

Banaras saris are made in the town by the same name. These are also popular because of their exquisite brocade designs with gold threads. These saris cannot be hand washed but must be dry-cleaned. They, along with the Conjeevaram saris, are also considered to be the most expensive.


Poncahmpalli saris

Special silk saris from Andhra Pradesh, called Ponchampalli saris, are made from a special tie-dye process to create the colored designs. Exclusive saris with vertical designs for special occasions are very popular. Ponchampalli saris are very attractive and expensive.

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The sari is the national dress for Indian women. It is a more elegant and fashionable item to wear than a salwar kameez or even western clothes. The types and design of the various saris differ from state to state. Saris are usually 6 yards long but 9 yard saris are worn by orthodox Brahmin women and by brides at their weddings. Saris are made in cotton, polyester, rayon and silk.

Cotton saris

Cotton saris are very popular since they are so comfortable to wear in the hot summer. They are made at textile mills in Mumbai (Bombay), Ahmedabad, Delhi and a few mills in South India. They vary in texture depending on the fineness, or thread count, of the threads that are used. These have usually multicolor, printed designs while some are block printed by hand. A cottage industry thrives making them on handlooms.

In Kerala, saris are usually made of cotton by hand weavers.  Called Kasavu saris, they are white or ivory fabric with a colorful border. Kasavu is the name of the gold brocade border which makes these saris uniquely identifiable.

Polyester and rayon saris

Polyester and rayon saris are also available in multicolored printed designs. The city of Surat in the state of Gujarat is the largest centre for making these saris. Their advantages are that they dry quickly, don’t require ironing and are lightweight.

Silk saris

Silk is the most expensive and luxurious material for saris. They are woven on handlooms with silk threads that made via the process of sericulture (silk farming) primarily in the states of Karnataka and Bengal. The primary centers for making silk saris include Kanjeepuram and Dharmavaram in Tamil Nadu, Bangalore in Karnataka, Ponchampalli in Andhra and Varnasi (Banaras) in Uttar Pradesh. Small amounts of silk saris are made in Bengal and Kashmir.

The sari that I am wearing in the photo to the right is made of Kanjeepuram silk. In my next entry I will tell you more about the special silk saris from these regions.



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I thought it would be a good idea for my wardrobe to fit in when I visited India so I went shopping for a traditional north Indian salwar kameeze. I like them because they are so easy to wear – just a dress with pants and a scarf. I can throw one on and be ready to go anywhere – dressy or casual – but most important, they are comfortable. I purchased two cute salwar kameezes at a shop in Richardson, TX. All of the cute ones were made out of polyester. I hoped they would be comfortable.


When an opportunity to wear one arose after we arrived in Chennai, I decided on the dark blue one since it was dressier of the two and we were going to eat dinner out at a nice restaurant. As soon as I put it on, I knew it was going to be a mistake. I couldn’t wear it. The bedroom was air conditioned and had a ceiling fan spinning at max speed. Once I stepped in the living room without any a/c, I started sweating. It was just 95 degrees with high humidity. The dress started sticking to me like an extra layer of skin. I knew I couldn’t survive an evening with polyester melted onto me so I quickly changed clothes.  I ended up wearing a skirt with a knit cotton top. I was able to enjoy dinner and the rest of the evening.


Both outfits remained in my suitcase until I returned home. I am now waiting for a cold winter day for them to make their debut.

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I have been driving for nearly 40 years. I drove in Boston where people are very aggressive and drive with one hand on the horn. In Texas, drivers are too busy checking their makeup, singing along with the radio or driving too fast to pay attention to the road. In India it is an entirely new and unique experience. Just don’t try this at home.


As the cars we hired in each city maneuvered through the heavy traffic, each vehicle vying for the next inch of space advantage, I was amazed that I began to understand how the traffic moved. Here are the key rules of the road:

The first rule of the road involves the use of the horn. You honk as you come up behind another vehicle (single short toot). You honk as you pass them (multiple short toots) and you honk as you cut in front of someone as you merge in around a turn (long toot). Finally the horn is also used when driving on the wrong side of the road, cutting in without right of way or doing something that is very risky (both long and short toots).


Bullock cart on the road competes with autos in India.

Bullock cart on the road competes with autos in India.

Even though lane markers and center stripes were painted on the larger roads at significant cost to the government, they are largely ignored. Since the vehicles are narrower than the lanes, they move over to make more (ad hoc) lanes to get more vehicles on the road and get them moving (supposedly) or snarl the traffic more completely (most likely). With cars of all sizes, auto-rickshaws, bullock carts, motorbikes, bicycles, why waste space that could otherwise be occupied?

Red lights don’t always mean stop. If you don’t see anyone coming on the cross street, why waste the time? Just go for it. At large intersections, the government installed timers so you can see the number of seconds remaining before the light turns red or green. That way you can start out maneuvering the next guy.

Next, there is a hierarchy of who or what gets the right of way. Cows because they are sacred are at the top of the list and no one bothers them. Next on the list are the big German cars followed by the other imported cars. They are new and expensive so they must be important. City buses take the right of way because they are huge and just roll down the streets. Next are the cabs followed, in order, by auto-rickshaws, bicycles and hand carts. Pedestrians are last because they have no horns or metal around them for protection. They can also jump out of the road.

Another rule is I have the right of way over you. Driving is a game of strategy, like multidimensional chess. Since there are so many vehicles on the road, I must win.

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After arriving at our hotel in Kochi my family and I wanted to take a tour of the backwaters on a boat. Since our hotel was not too far from the boat dock, we took the most readily available and least expensive transportation available – the auto-rickshaw (commonly called auto). It was an interesting experience to ride in the back of one of these tiny three-wheeled vehicles that is powered with a small motorcycle engine especially when it had the rain protection in place (see photo). However, it became a wild ride on the way back to the hotel in the rain after the boat ride because only one auto could be found.

A ride in an auto-rickshaw, inexpensive transportation in India, can be a wild ride. With four of us in the back, we put my son in the front seat with the driver. Avi is the strongest of the bunch so we thought he could hold on better than the rest of us. I was afraid that one of us would fall out as we zigged and zagged around the corners. Normally since the sides are open, you may get catch a breeze for the natural air conditioning. Since it was raining, the driver had the rain covering which is just a tarpaulin that is buttoned to one side. From the back we couldn’t see a thing. It was almost like riding blind. Autos have no suspension at all so you feel every bump and hole in the road. You may feel like you are playing real life Frogger but for the economy minded or the adventure seeking traveler, it can’t be beat!

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