Cultures across the world have table manners specific to the kind of cuisine they boast of and are also a reflection of the traditions of the particular society. While proper table manners vary from culture to culture, there are a few basic rules which hold true, no matter where you are, which one may already be aware of. However, there are certain dining etiquettes that you should follow while dining with your Indian hosts.
To start with – cutlery. 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 hands. Traditionally, Indians do not have the concept of using forks and knives while eating; their usage is limited to only the kitchen. They are usually used for the purpose of serving food unto the plates of the guests.When flatbreads such as chapati or naan are served with the meal, it is acceptable to break them into pieces (small ones, just about a mouthful) with your hand and wrap the curry or gravy using them and then eat it. In South India, it is considered ill-mannered to let your food stain the outside of your fingers or palm while eating and food is to be eaten only with the tips of the fingers.
It is not necessary for all Indian foods to be eaten with the hands, however if the food is soupy, (for example – daals) spoons may be used. Also, meals with rice may be eaten with spoons in both North 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, even though only on rare occasions, it is acceptable to eat using spoons sometimes. However, we would suggest you try eating with your hands, not only is that the proper way to eat, it is also a method of bonding. Also, if a meal is served over banana leaves then it is customary to fold the leaves over from the top (and not from the bottom) at the end of the meal. This would imply that you have finished your meal.
The concept of “jhootan”
The concept of ‘uchchishtam’ (in Sanskrit), ‘entho’ (in Bengal), ‘aitha’ (in Orissa), ‘jutha’ (in North India), ‘ushta’ (in Maharashtra), ‘echal’ (in Tamil Nadu), ‘echil’ (in Kerala), ‘enjalu’ (in Karnataka), or ‘engili’ (in Andhra Pradesh) is a common belief in India. It can refer to the food item or the utensils or serving dishes, that have come in contact with someone’s mouth, or saliva or the plate while eating – something that directly or indirectly came in contact with your saliva. It can also refer to leftover food. It is considered extremely rude and unhygienic to offer someone food contaminated with saliva. This is not the case in most of the Western countries, therefore, while you may think that you are being friendly by offering a bite of something to your host you’ve already tasted, they might actually be uncomfortable accepting the gesture.
It is, however, not uncommon in India for spouses, or extremely close friends or family, to do that 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.
Irrespective of whether you use cutlery or your hand (typically right hand), one is expected to wash hands before and after the meal. During the course of the meal, cleaning the hand you are eating with, with a cloth or paper tissue is considered unhygienic. However it is acceptable to do so while dining at restaurants. In South India, an unfolded long towel on right shoulder is a tradition, (mostly followed only on formal occasions) which can be used to wipe your hands after washing.
Another attribute you would come across would be your host offering you food multiple times, to a point which may seem coercive 😛 The fact is, according to Indian culture, it is the role of the host to do so, to literally stuff you with food to the brim. If he/she hasn’t accomplished it, they would call themselves a bad host!
Also, it is expected that one should not leave the table before the host or the eldest person have finished their food.
It is not necessary to taste each and every dish prepared, but you should finish everything on the plate as it is considered as a sign of respect for the food served and the host. For this reason, take only as much food on the plate as you can finish.
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.
Courses in Indian meal depend on the area. North India has one course and desserts. Gujaratis have roti course with desserts followed by a rice course. South and East India, where meal is mostly rice based, orderly servings of accompaniments make various courses In various communities, various etiquette may prevail for indicating end of meal. For Marwaris, the guest must explicitly ask for papad, for Gujaratis, the guest must ask for rice. In South India, serving buttermilk by the host indicates end of meal.
While these are only basic things we have tried to put together for anyone curious about what the general code of etiquette is at the Indian table, they are barely written in stone; so there is absolutely no need to get intimidated by them. If there is one most important rule, it is to enjoy your meal. If you have enjoyed your meal the contentment shows and that is the only thing your host would care about. Oh, and it is not a matter of ‘if’ you enjoy an Indian meal, you definitely will!