Having a freshly washed right hand in India is essential if
you want to make it through a meal without an emergency trip to the bathroom, although
even that may not prevent illness in the world capital of dysentery. One of the
safer and more rewarding dining experiences is at the home of a local. If you're
lucky enough to get an invitation to a home (Indians eat late so dinner may not
begin until 9:00 or 10:00 pm), bring a gift of chocolate or flowers and if the family
has children, be sure to bring them a gift as well. Arriving a little late is normal,
however don't keep them waiting too long and once you arrive leave your shoes
outside the door (take them off with your left hand); most families will have a
pair of slippers for guests to wear.
If you're eating at a restaurant and you initiated the meal, expect the locals
to bring a guest. The table will greet you with a plate and perhaps a glass of water
(no other drinks are typically consumed with food), but little else. Instead of
utensils (cutlery), use your right hand to eat. Before eating, everyone washes their
hands and this acts as their food delivery device. If the food is very liquidy a
spoon will probably also be provided.
Before dining, your host may direct you to a chair and you may find yourself sitting
on the floor, which is customary in India, although tables are gaining popularity
and nearly every restaurant has them. After sitting down, most Indians will take
a minute to give thanks for the food, no matter their religion.
All the food is supposed to be served at once, however if individual plates are
ordered, few restaurants can time their food preparation so everyone is served at
the same time. Many Indians are vegetarian, plus beef and pork are almost always
absent from the menu due to a large number of Muslims (who don't eat pork) and
Hindus (who don't eat beef), so the food ordered may be vegetarian. As the dishes
do arrive, your host may serve you, but wait to eat until the oldest male guest
is served and begins eating. Typically, people are served by order of importance
and eating is done in this same order. In more traditional settings, men and women
may even eat separately and men will always be served first.
After your host serves food from the communal dishes to your plate, you must be
aware of a few important aspects to dining in India. First, don't ever touch
any of the food with your left hand, the left hand is considered unclean and reserved
for bathroom duty and taking your shoes off, only eat with the right hand, even
if using a spoon. Second, once food touches your plate, even if you haven't
touched that plate, no one else will eat it and you shouldn't offer it to anyone.
In much the same way, taking something off another person's plate, even your
spouse's is strictly off limits.
Being served a second helping is common in India, but everyone tends to be served
at nearly the same time, so pace your eating to match the pace of others. As you
finish, clear off your plate since leaving any food is rude. If eating out, the
person who invites the others is expected to pay for everyone.
Tipping in India is inconsistent, but at tourist locations
is similar to much of Europe. At restaurants catering to
tourists, about 5-10% is expected, while at local restaurants rounding up is fine.
Celebrations & Events
There are a large number of celebrations and festivals that include specific foods
and drinks, but, like their regular diet, these festival foods are generally vegetarian.
Among the more popular foods served during festivals are the sweets and other desserts;
these are served at both Diwali and Lohri.
For the country's Muslims, Eid al Fitr is the primary food holiday.
This festival takes place after Ramadan, an Islamic religious holiday that requires
fasting for 30 days. To celebrate the end of this fast Eid al Fitr is filled
with numerous foods, which differ from family to family and region to region but
general consists of various meats and fish.
In regards to non-alcoholic beverages, tea is perhaps the popular, hopefully made
with boiled water. Coconut milk is also very common, especially on street corners
as vendors cut the top of the coconut off and serve it with a straw. Milk is not
common, but due to British influence it can be found in many locations that serve
tea. Colas and juices are also common and easily accessible. For a more local specialty,
try lassi, a yogurt drink that is often times mixed with spices or salt.
Alcohol isn't real popular in India, partly due to the significant Muslim minority.
However, beer is the alcohol of choice for those who do drink and there are a few
local breweries with large national distribution, including Kingfisher. Wines as
well as international brands of beer and hard liquor are widely available at most
hotels catered to foreigners. There are a few states in the country that outlaw
alcohol, states that include Gujarat as well as some states in the far eastern part
of the country.
The tap water in India should not be consumed because it is
not safe. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from
the tap water. Salads and fruits may have also been washed in the tap water so be
careful with those foods as well. Bottled water is readily available throughout
the country, but be sure the cap is sealed when you first open the bottle as some
people are known to fill old bottles with tap water and sell it.