Customs and etiquette in Indian dining
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The etiquette of Indian dining varies with the region in India.
Typically, rural settings, all Indians wash their hands thoroughly prior to dining, then eat with their fingers, with the use of minimum cutlery. This practice is historic and premised on the cultural premise that eating is a sensual activity, and touch is part of the experience along with the taste, aroma of the food, and its presentation such as on a Thali, or on a large plate made from washed banana leaf(used in south), or stitched and washed siali (used in the north) leaves. Traditionally, the fingers are also used to feel the temperature of the food to one's taste and to combine flavors.
To eat rice, they mix it with curry, pick small quantities up with the fingers and push it into the mouth with the thumb. To eat bread, they tear small portions of bread (Roti, Naan) folding it into a small pocket to scoop the desired amount of curry. Most food is prepared to be of bite-size; where large items, e.g. a chicken leg, are served it is acceptable to eat with one's hands.
In rural settings, sitting down together on floor mats in comfortable clothes is the norm. In restaurants and hotel settings, tables and chairs are typical. Many urban, upper-middle-class homes also do the same.
In many areas, when eating with the help of one's fingers, only one hand is used for eating (the dominant hand), and the other remains dry and only used to pass dishes or to serve or drink water. In many cases, strict vegetarian and non-vegetarian people eat together, but the etiquette is not to mix cooking or serving utensils between the foods, to respect the spiritual beliefs of non-violence to animals prevalent among the strict vegetarians. Similarly, cleanliness and hygiene are important. People do not dip, serve or accept food with the fingers or cutlery that have gone in someone's mouth. While cooking, the cook does not taste food and use the same utensil to stir the food. Once the food is tasted with a utensil, it is put away to wash. Food which has been dipped with fingers and cutlery used for eating is considered jootha or Uchchhishta (contaminated). The precept of not contaminating all the food or a drink with bacteria or viruses in one's saliva is of particular concern as the health of someone could be threatened through cross-contamination.
Indian food incorporates numerous whole and powdered spices sourced from various roots, barks, seeds, leaves. The whole spices such as cloves, bay leaves or cinnamon sticks are not to be eaten as part of culturally accepted dining practice, just separated and set aside by the diner usually on his or her plate.
Eating is usually with family and friends, with the homemaker keeping an eye on the table, bringing and offering more food. However, naan is not generally shared amongst diners. In larger group meals or celebrations, a volunteer or attendant may not eat with the group, and dedicate himself or herself to bringing meal courses, feeding and serving the group. Asking for more and helping oneself to items is accepted and cheered. Special requests such as less or more heat, yogurt, and other items are usually welcomed. Sometimes the group may eat silently, but asking questions to a loved one, catching up about one's day and conversations are common.
Regionally, the tradition varies from not wasting food on one's plate, to only eating what one feels like and leaving the rest. However, in some regions, leaving food as an offering is common; some consider this as a method of only wishing to consume pure spirits of the food and the discarded food will represent the evil spirits of the past. Washing one's hands after the meal and drying them with a provided towel is a norm.
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