I recently attended an Indian luncheon. Although the food was prepared at a restaurant in New York City, the menu had been specially selected by friends in Mumbai. And, in order that all of us would truly appreciate Indian food at its best, Indian rules of etiquette applied.
That meant no forks, no spoons, no knives. We were all to eat with our hands.
The expressions of dismay on our normally blasé New York faces was quite comical. Why were we so flummoxed at being asked to do something everyone does normally from birth? Although the exotic aromas of our meal had had us all salivating, suddenly we were eyeing the curries and sauces with great trepidation.
We were told that the reason Indians and other cultures eat with their fingers is because you can better blend food together to enhance its flavor. We were, to put it mildly, skeptical.
Fortunately, one of our party had just returned from India and was able to demonstrate the proper techniques, of which there are two:
1) Tear a piece of flatbread – roti, puri, naan – and use it to scoop your food. You can re-use the piece or tear off more.
2) Use your fingers to mush rice and other ingredients into a suitable bite-size portion and pop into your mouth. Repeat.
At first, holding down a piece of roti (flat bread) with three fingers and manipulating the other two to tear off a piece feels awkward. But, as we learned, perseverance has its rewards. Hunger is a great motivator. We were amazed to discover that this same technique works for “cutting” meat.
Should you ever travel to India or find yourself in a similar situation, here are some important etiquette tips
1) Wash your hands before and after the meal. Obvious, but especially important under the circumstances. Merely wiping them clean with a napkin is not acceptable.
2) NEVER touch your food or even the plate with your left hand. Due to hygienic practices in some areas, it is considered quite offensive.
3) Only spoon as much food onto your plate as you know you will be able to eat – it’s considered very rude to leave food on your plate. It is your host’s duty to offer you more, so don’t worry. You won’t go hungry.
4) Always wait for the host or the eldest person at the table to begin eating before you start.
And enjoy. Once you relax and get with the program, it really is a great way to eat!