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How to eat Indian dinner at restaurant

An American here in the upper midwest: I've cooked lots of Indian food at home and been to countless Indian restaurants, mostly lunch buffets. But only once or twice have I gone to an Indian restaurant in the evening without any buffet, and I realize that I am unsure what kinds of protocols are normal for Indian dining. I assume there might be differences depending on regions. But my query is quite basic, and I'm asking a question analogous to these points about "Western" dining:

1. Americans generally think of appetizer, maybe a soup or salad course, and then a personal entree, and dessert.
2. Some American dining influenced from Europe might put the salad after the entree, or introduce a cheese course.

But when I'm at an Indian restaurant, it's not clear to me whether courses work the same way. Are samosas "appetizers," for example? Isn't it normal for "entree" items like aloo gobi and rogan josh to be served communally? Also, one of the things I like about buffets is being able to try many different things, whereas dining as a couple makes it seem like you really should just order a couple of main dishes. And I notice all kinds of various chutneys and raitas and raw veggies at lunch buffets, but I always wonder how and when Indians tend to insert these things into the dining.

I understand that restaurateurs are happy to let you do what you like, and when. But I'm curious what Indians typically take to be the most effective process for enjoying all these things.

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  1. In the Indian restaurants I go to here (New York City), the menus are laid out pretty much western style, with appetizers (so named) and soups/salads at the top, various entrees listed by type of meat or seafood or vegetarian, then rice, breads, sweets, beverages. Sometimes the tandoori dishes are put at the top of the menu, but we don't take that as a suggestion that they should be eaten first; might be because they're featured or take a while to prepare.

    My friends and I each order what we individually like, duplicating if that's how it comes out. Often we share samples; one couple shares half and half. Not communal or Chinese style.

    I suppose you could ask the waiter what might be a traditional Indian way. Otherwise, they'll bring your food in the usual American sequence.

    As for extras like bread, dal, and raita, those we order for the table and share around. Chutneys are provided without asking.

    1. Chutneys are normally eaten with snacks, like samosas, pakoras, kebabs, and charts. You normally don't eat them with your main. Indian food is traditionally served communal, ie buffet style. You normally don't eat just one thing, like just lasagna at an Italian restaurant or just enchiladas at a Mexican restaurant. Everything is eaten together. A typical plate at a party/event would be rice, lentils, 2-3veggies, meat (if offered), raita (yogurt) and salad. Bread of some sort is usually offered too. You take bites of different foods, sing the rice or the bread as the vehicle, not mix them all up.

      I do think that many Indian restaurants serve food the way Americans are used to it, such as apps, soups, salads, entree, etc. but that's not traditional.

      2 Replies
      1. re: boogiebaby

        I haven't been to India, but I have eaten at Indian restaurants in Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia. At most places, we order individual dishes, including rice or naan, and then eat communal style - a little of this, a little of that, all shared between everyone. At a few other places, we get a plate with rice, a vegetable curry, and a sambol (it's a base dish of sorts and everyone gets the same thing) but order meat and other dishes separately to be shared communally. Nowhere that we've eaten at have I seen it served western style, aka an individual has their own plate and nothing is shared.

        1. re: LMAshton

          I was referring to the American concept of categorizing dshes into apps, soups, etc., not the method of plating the food. My (almost year old) post did say that indian food is usually served communal style. However, here in the US, many indian restaurants divide the menus into said categories because Americans are used to ordering an app, then an entree, then a dessert. There are also some restaurants that do plate the food for one person instead of serving family style.

      2. Hi, I'm Indian. Except at "thali" restaurants (restaurants that serve "little bit of everything" meals on compartmentalized steel plates), or at places specialising in something like dosa where everybody gets more or less the same thing, I've never eaten food any way but family-style at an Indian restaurant, and I've never seen any Indian person serve a traditionally prepared Indian meal as individual composed plates. Of course, many newer Indian fusion places serve their food like that and seem to make it hard to share on purpose, but it doesn't seem like that's the kind of restaurant you're talking about

        Samosas, pakoras, bhaji, bonda and the like are snacks foods that are served while chatting before the meal or at afternoon tea (or bought at outdoor food carts, but the street food of India is a whole other topic). When eating at someone's home, they are usually not part of the meal you'll have at the table, but are served in the living area, with cocktails. Often lighter chutneys like mint, tamarind or cilantro chutneys, are eaten with them, but other, heavier chutneys, frequently made with grated coconut and/or ground up nuts or lentils, are eaten with main dish items like dosa, idli, uttapam and other South Indian breakfast/lunch foods.

        I've seen some restaurants here serving sambar and related liquid-y lentil dishes as soups, but they are what translates roughly as "poured curries", and are traditionally made to be poured over rice or rice and lentil-based breads.

        Pickles are generally served alongside the main dishes to add heat and pungency as needed. As in most Asian cultures, it is common for Indian cooks to try to give something of all five flavors in every meal and the pickles help with that. In the South it is not uncommon for people to finish every meal with a helping of plain white rice mixed with plain yogurt and a bit of pickle. Raitas are also served with the main entrees to round out the flavor profile of the meal, to cool the palate and aid in digestion. It is pretty standard to serve a raita alongside a biryani. Even though I see people using raita as a dip for papadum and so on in Indian restaurants here, I haven't really seen anybody do that in India. Papad is generally also served along with the main meal and bits are broken, crushed or dipped into your food as you go to add texture, not often eaten like a potato chip or cracker. So, while there's kind of an appetizer course tradition in India, there's no real salad or soup course. All the dishes are served at once, and no traditional Indian host or hostess would serve a formal meal with just one veg, one grain and one protein to guests (even though they might do that with their kids). The only beverage served at the table is usually water. I've never seen an Indian person drinking a lassi with dinner.

        Basically, the foundation of an Indian meal is the starchy carb -- rice or another grain, or some type of bread, or sometimes both. Everything else is taken in modest, sometimes almost condiment-like portions on the side of the starch. These curries, pickles, yogurts, etc, get mixed into your grain or picked up with a piece of bread a bit at a time. Part of the Indian style of eating is composing every mouthful as you go with a bit of this and a bit of that, so that you experience lots of different "bites" in each meal. Some older Indian people consider the practice of mixing everything on your plate up together all at once, or piling a whole bunch of meat and veg on top of your rice as if it were spaghetti or stroganoff, kind of crass, but here, happily, noone cares how you roll with the contents of your own plate.

        Happy eating, Ninrn

        19 Replies
        1. re: ninrn

          So interesting and helpful. Thank you!

          1. re: ninrn

            Hubs is Indian, and I've seen exactly what you've written as the norm in his household! I kinda smile when I see Americans eat sambar as a soup, since at our house, it gets dumped over the protein/carb main dish. Also, while samosas may really be an appetizer, I'll often make a huge platter of 'em (half veg, half meat) and they become our main meal. Raita is certainly used to help moisten (and de-heat) the main, not as a papad dip.

            1. re: pine time

              Thanks for mentioning how you use sambar and the other dishes. I didn't realize sambar is often dumped over the main.
              I think part of the reason non-Indian people use Raita as a dip is that it is quite similar to tzatziki/cacik, which are usually used as dip or sauce.

              1. re: prima

                Sambar is poured over rice when eaten with rice. But when eaten with dosais or idlis, their nature is such that you will tear off pieces and dip/scoop up the sambar. But sambar is not a dip (eaten in small amounts). It is a dish in its own right.

                1. re: Rasam

                  I've mostly had Sambar with dosas, and it sounds like I was doing the right thing.
                  Thanks, Rasam.

                2. re: prima

                  Wow, I've never seen anyone eat raita as a dip and it never even occurred to me. And we eat Greek and middle eastern food regularly.

                  1. re: rasputina

                    I've seen this a few times, including bad restaurants which cater to patrons' misconceptions by serving papadum and raita like chips and dip. Mark Bittman, in the NYT, took things one step further and proposed that raita need not be treated solely as a dip, but is also a good substitute for potato salad.

                    1. re: rasputina

                      My young son likes to dip naan in raita...

                  1. re: ninrn

                    Old thread, great post, one further bit of info requested.

                    If raita is meant to "round out" a dish, does one eat it with a spoon, pour it on a bit of rice (sounds like yes), drink directly from the bowl, pour it on the last bit of food?

                    The reason I get lassis at restaurants is usually to balance out the spice during the meal - if I'm supposed to be using raita, I'll start doing that! Thanks!

                    1. re: bbulkow

                      I've never seen the Indian relatives eat raita from a spoon and certainly not "pour" it--too thick to pour or drink from a bowl--are you sure you're thinking raita or sambar?. It's scooped up in the bit of chappati, along w/ a bit of the main, then all popped into the mouth.

                      1. re: bbulkow

                        Raita is an accompaniment. You eat it with the rice/roti/naan and other dishes, not on its own.

                        1. re: boogiebaby

                          If served the raita I have eaten in India and Singapore, I'd only need garlic naan to complete the meal.

                          1. re: BuildingMyBento

                            What do you find different about the raita in India and Singapore, as opposed to the US? I've had raita here in the US, in India, Singapore, Malaysia and Toronto/Vancouver, but haven't noticed a major difference between them.

                        2. re: bbulkow

                          Thanks for liking my post, bbulkow. I agree with boogiebaby, raita is an accompaniment, and a pretty flexible one. You can pour some on your rice, or scoop some with a bread, stir a bit into your meat or veg as you go, whatever. It's very common to serve a raita with biryani. I have been known to eat cucumber-ginger raita out of a bowl with a spoon because I love it that much, but it's not at all "the done thing". It always goes with something else.

                          1. re: bbulkow

                            Usually, you spoon a little raita from the communal bowl onto your plate, and take a little bit with each mouthful of food. But it's not like you're 'supposed' to eat it in a certain way, or use it instead of lassi. I like raita with biryani or other flavorful rice dishes, or sometimes to add moisture to a roti-based meal, but I wouldn't normally eat it alongside dal and rice. And if you don't have raita handy, plain yogurt can be used in the same way, maybe with a pinch of salt.

                            I also like my raita with a bit of chopped green chile, so its use as a spice-defuser is limited.

                            1. re: Scrofula

                              Eating yogurt with dal might be more of a Punjabi thing. I know many fellow Punjabis who eat it that way. My daughter will not eat dal unless there is plain yogurt to eat with it.

                              1. re: boogiebaby

                                It's not that rare elsewhere in the north; many of my family members eat it that way. Or with khichdi; yogurt is supposed to be one of its 'four friends'. I'm just not a big fan of the yogurt and lentil combination, personally. A baby-food-on-baby-food thing, I guess; great separately, but too much together.

                          2. re: ninrn

                            this was a great reply!
                            one thing to add that i love the plate of fresh onions, limes and chili pepper that are on the table and can be brought to the table usually on request with my indian meals.

                          3. Bada Bing, you may know some of the info below, but I am gonna just put it out for others who may be curious:

                            Just thinking of a typical Indian American restaurant menu (Mughlai/Punjabi), there are no rules about what you can and can't order together. Just as common sense advice, you'll want to vary the proteins and veg. and choose things that have different types of sauces/gravies so that you end up with a good variety of dishes. Definitely the food is meant to be served communally, with the exception of some items like dosas or stuffed parathas. I did notice that at restaurants people do order heavy breads like stuffed paratha or stuffed kulchas alongside the meal, but this is not traditional.

                            Many people do have appetizers (called "starters") with Indian food at restaurants in India, and I have seen that at dinner parties, too. It's true that such heavy meals wouldn't be had at home, but definitely at Indian restaurants in India there are starter menus with different types of tikkis, chaats, samosas, and more. This is following a Western menu model, yes, but in some regions in India, appetizer type items have always been part of the menu, like bhajas and other fried items in Bengali cuisine, for example. If you have room for an appetizer, why not get one?

                            One thing I noticed at Indian American restaurants that strikes me as odd is that people have these giant, super thick (much thicker than homemade) and sweet lassis with their meals. If your resto serves things like shikanji or fresh lime soda, these are nice beverages to try. But lassi is like a breakfast or a sort of snack. It makes you too full. If a thick lassi is sipped alongside a heavy meal, or how can anyone enjoy the food? In India at Indian restaurants I noticed it is trendy to have thick juices and mocktails with a meal, but I never liked this idea. It's like having a milkshake alongside a heavy meal with US cuisine...burger and shake? Okay, it's done, but I just feel it prevents people from enjoying the food.

                            Biryani is meant to be eaten as a dish by itself. You can pour raita onto it. Certain types of regional restaurants serve specific gravies alongside biryani (like Hyderabadi biryani with a little bowl of mirchi ka saalan)---haven't seen this much in the US, though. For the most part, you should eat the biryani by itself, adding raita or a squeeze of lime juice. You wouldn't mix daal into your biryani. You also don't use naan or other flat bread to scoop up biryani or other rice.

                            Although one can eat however they like, generally wetter gravy items are meant to be eaten with rice, and dryer items with flat bread. Since flat bread tastes best right off of the stove or out of the tandoor, it is typical to eat one's dishes with flat bread first, and then move on to eating the food with rice.

                            Mint and tamarind chutneys are meant to be had with starter items like samosas and pakoras. Raitas and chutneys are eaten with the meal, but not the mint or tamarind kind. Typically Mughlai/Punjabi restos don't serve the types of chutneys that one would mix into their rice at a home meal (like tomato chutney), but just FYI. I haven't noticed this at very Americanized Indian restaurants, but some Indo-Pak restaurants that serve mainly a South Asian clientele will serve a plate of "salaad" or cut cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, radish, lime wedges, and chiles along side the meal. You are supposed to take bites of these things just to change the flavors in your mouth. You can use the lime to squeeze the lime juice in your food, or even squeeze it on top of the salad. I's all about enjoying a variety of textures and flavors.

                            I think people should just eat however they want, but it is good to try the traditional protocol for eating various cuisines, as it honors the integrity of the cuisine. These are just some generalizations, and anyway diners eat differently at restos than they would at home. If you wanted protocol for Indian meals at home, that would be a different post, too. Basically it would be very simple without all of the heavy stuff.

                            19 Replies
                            1. re: luckyfatima

                              An excellent post, luckyfatima. Could you elaborate on the proper way to use utensils and bread. I was under the impression that the bread was used as a utensil for all dishes but from your post, however, it seems that you only use bread for the dryer dishes, leaving open the question of what one uses to eat the wetter dishes in combination with the rice.

                              Also, could you comment on the proper way to eat the bread. I was under the impression that you are supposed to use only the right hand and have always wondered how you break the bread without touching it with the left hand as well.

                              1. re: brentk

                                Not luckyfatima, but many Indians do eat with their hands. It's definitely something you have to learn though, so you don't look like you are putting fistfuls of food in your mouth. My mom eats all her indian meals with her hands. Roti/Paratha/Puri meals are definitely with hands, as you have to tear the bread apart into bites. Rice depends for me -- I normally eat with a fork, as I prefer not to have turmeric stains on my nude nail polish (and yes, it will stain so your polish glows slightly). But, if I'm eating certain things, like Malay Nasi Lemak (coconut rice with various accompaniments), I have to eat with my hands to get the full enjoyment.

                                When you tear your bread, many Indians can use one hand to do it. You put your fingers on the bread, and use your thumb and index finger to tear a piece off. It takes a little practice. Or you make sure to wash your hands before eating and then use both hands to tear the bread, but eat with your dominant hand. I think the idea of only using your right hand is a bit dated, as I know many left handed Indians who eat with their left hand. I was in India in April, and saw many people using left hand or both hands to tear of bites of paratha and batura.

                                Wet dishes are either scooped with the roti (bread) or eaten with rice. I think in most homes, for an everyday meal, people make either rice or roti, but not both. Parties and events are a different story though. If eating a thin curry or dal with roti, you bend/fold the roti bit to make a scoop and scoop the liquid. For drier items, you use the roti to pinch a bite of the item.

                                1. re: boogiebaby

                                  Much of this corresponds with Mr. Pine's family eating habits, too. The rice, with a bit of wetting agent, is rolled into a bite-sized ball and popped into the mouth. I've never seen anyone lick their fingers, either--the middle finger or thumb is used as a "pusher" of the rice ball. One favorite memory was my first time at a large banquet, when we ate off of banana leaves, and the waiters (bearers) just rolled up the leaves & tossed 'em afterwards. No dishwashing!!

                                  1. re: boogiebaby

                                    Also not LuckyF, but it is very Indian to eat with your fingers (not your whole hand). There is some Ayurvedic philosophy behind this, such that touching your food with your fingers as much as possible when cooking/eating is instrumental in transfering some of the qualities of the food to you. Basically you don't distance yourself from your food with metal implements (other than necessary when cutting, cooking, serving etc.). Hand feeding babies/young children is also very important for communicating loving touch,plus you remain aware of temperature, texture, etc.

                                    As Boogie says, people are using utensils more and more, especially if they want to appear 'modern', and occasionally use their left hand when manouvering a roti. But in general people keep their right hand for eating and left hand for personal hygiene, as common all over the Middle East and South Asia. Left handers learn to adjust, do other things with the left hand but eat with the right hand.

                                    There is an art to eating gracefully with your fingers so that you don't slop or drop, nor do you plunge your whole hand into the food. Just use your fingertips, make a neat parcel or bolus, and transfer efficiently to your mouth, using your thumb to push. It's hard for many Westerners to conceptualize because your entire childhood people are telling you NOT to eat with your fingers and it's considered uncouth. But it is very polite to do this in India and it must be done correctly.

                                    There are a few clips on youtube demonstrating it. Yes, you do tear off pieces of roti with just one hand like Boogie described and young children take a few months to learn how to do it, but then it becomes an effortless fine motor skill (like eating with chopsticks). That's why in fancy Indian restos, finger bowls are brought around at the end of meals (warm water with lemon slices) to clean your fingers. Else everyone makes a beeline for the restroom/sink and washes up.

                                    Oprah on her India visit this year questioned incredulously that Indians still eat with their hands and then she stuck her left hand into her food, and ended up with her foot in her mouth.

                                    1. re: Rasam

                                      Oh, that was very irksome of Oprah, the *still* eat with your hands comment. That meal she had looked beautiful, though. And she looked lovely in Indian garb at all of the events, with the exception of one ill-draped sari.

                                      I do use naan and roti with hands at restaurants, but I feel somehow at typical Indian American Punjabi-Mughlai restaurants it would look strange to eat rice+curry with my hands. Oddly, I have even seen some Indians sawing away at dosas with a knife and a fork, but I think dosa is much better and easier to eat with one's hands. My husband's family is somewhat Westernized and Anglicized so they tend to have a formal dining type set up at home, with various plates and utensils---probably more formal than any British table is today. No eating on the floor with the dastarkhwaan (like a picnic mat for people who don't prefer tables), making balls of food with one's hands. Just from experience, I find that I prefer some things when eaten by the hand, though.

                                      In some types of restaurants in South Asia, there is a little sink in the dining area, or adjacent to it, where diners can cleanse their hands before and after a meal. Some people also use the sink to rinse out their mouths and scrub their teeth with their index fingers when they are finished eating.

                                      Oh, one thing to add to the discussion is that there is usually a dish of fennel, candied fennel, or a mixture of fennel and other ingredients in a special dish at the entrance of the restaurant. (In India it is often brough to the table with the check.) This is a mouth freshener and digestive to be taken after the meal. One spoons a tiny pinch into the right hand, pops the pinch into the mouth, chews and swallows.

                                      1. re: Rasam

                                        The fingers vs whole hand is regional; many people in the south use their whole hands to form the food into a ball, which they then place in the middle of their outstretched tongue. It... isn't pretty. I grew up eating with my fingers, but I have many south Indian relatives who do the whole-hand-and-tongue thing.

                                      2. re: boogiebaby

                                        Nothing to add to that, except that we do tend to have both rice and flat bread at every main meal.

                                        My husband is left handed and used his left-hand, but some dogmatic aunties have to inform him that this is un-Islamic (there are some religious traditions against it). His family never forced him to try to use his right hand either, but I know of left handed people whose families have done that. I have been chastised for drinking by picking up my cup with the left hand. Once again, this is a Muslim thing, have no idea if people from other communities pay attention to that.

                                        I have a trick of breaking up the roti into the food and then eating it with a spoon. That helps me control how many rotis I eat, as well as avoid the hideous turmeric-nail syndrome.

                                        1. re: luckyfatima

                                          Well I certainly learned a lot and looked at some of the YouTube examples. No more eating roti and rice together with curry for me!

                                          Still, as most of the dishes I order in Indian restaurants have sauces and rice is typcially brought out with the meal I now find myself confused as to when to order Roti at all. Help!!!

                                          1. re: brentk

                                            Order roti if you like roti and want to eat it. Save the rice for a doggy bag, or eat the dish first with roti then with rice.
                                            Now we work on excising the word 'curry' from your vocab and replacing it with the actual name of the actual dish :D

                                          2. re: luckyfatima

                                            The right hand=food and left hand=hygiene thing is common across religions and communities of the Middle East and S. Asia (It is there in Judaism and Hinduism too). Some (maybe older) people are quite "baggad" about it. In fact the right hand is for "good" activities - giving and receiving money while shopping, gifts, eating, religious rituals, etc. Anthropologists have spilled a lot of ink on this. I recall one time a shopkeeper requesting my aunt (left handed because her right hand is disabled due to polio) to hand over the money with her right hand because it was the "bauni" (first transaction of the day, so it is significant). She managed it.

                                            Examining my own thoughts, I think I feel fine if someone uses utensils with left hand, but if hand-eating, then it feels more 'correct' to use the right. Again, just my personal view, no reason others have to agree and I would not request anyone to change.

                                            Also, I have seen/experienced/read about the emerging norm that it's good to eat with utensils (this is fine), AND it is uncouth to eat with hands, especially in fancy Indian restos (not so fine). I also found this attitude among some overseas Indian friends (in Kenya) even eating at home. It's great to have a choice and eat how you like, but I very much dislike the notion that it is bad to eat with hands, so I go out of my way sometimes to do that. Plus it's almost impossible to eat off a banana leaf with utensils.

                                            My kids are handsers for rotis and spooners for rice. When they were in preschool / kindergarten, I had to specially tell the teachers not to discourage them from using their hands with the idlis sent in their tiffin!
                                            There is a quote attributed to the last Shah of Iran that eating with knife and fork is like making love through an interpreter.

                                            The roti with spoon thing is new to me :) just in my personal view, I like the tactile sensation of picking up the food with the roti, and somehow have never experienced turmeric nails that lasted beyond the end-of-meal handwash. :)

                                            1. re: Rasam

                                              I taught my daughters to eat rice with their hand, and my older one (5) wants to use her hand to eat Chinese noodles, too. I had a hard time thinking of a logical reason why it's okay to eat rice with the hand, but bad to eat noodles with the hand. I decided not to make an issue of it and just let her eat the noodles with her hands. I am sure she'll stop doing that eventually.

                                              There is a stir fried dry and savory vermicelli dish (khare seviyan in Urdu, but I know it is a popular dish in S. India), do you know of that dish, and if so, is that usually eaten with a utensil or the hands?

                                              Edit: It found the dish http://yumfactor.blogspot.com/2011/03...

                                              1. re: luckyfatima

                                                Good question re noodles. We have semiya (seviyan) uppuma in South India and semiya lemon (similar to lemon rice). In these dishes the noodles are broken into smaller pieces and are thus easier to eat with hands.

                                                Semiya kheer is served in a katori (cup) and just about everyone eats *that* with a spoon. I guess in the older days they slurped that like drinking from a cup.
                                                I wonder how people used to eat gulab jamuns, rasmalai, kheer, other wet sweets etc in the past. Nowadays these are all spooned from a katori.

                                                I taught my kids to eat rice with their hands too, but they have just settled into eating it with a spoon. But other things like idlis, dosais, parathas, etc are hands because you just can't do those with a spoon, though like you LuckyF I have seen people trying to be 'propah' and eating them with utensils.

                                                After a point my head spins, it is all so arbitrary, and things change over time just eat how you like, as long as you don't snob on me for eating with my fingers :) (Hear that Oprah-ben?), and let me groan if I see you tackling a dosai with metal claws, or using naan to scoop up biryani (as in Boogie saw someone doing, see her post below).

                                                1. re: Rasam

                                                  Idlis by hand? Mr. Pine always puts his idli into a bowl of sambar or rasam. Has he been doing an un-Indian thing?! :)

                                                  1. re: pine time

                                                    No he is not. :)

                                                    Idlis can be put into a bowl of sambar or rasam and then spooned (or handed). Other people put the idlis on the side and then tear and dip.

                                                    Vadais taste great when floated in a bowl of sambar or rasam too. Or eaten dry and dipped in sambar / rasam / chutney.

                                          3. re: boogiebaby

                                            One more tip about the one-hand-bread thing: ask an indian person to show you. Descriptions are hard to follow, and there is a trick to it, using some fingers to steady and some to tear. You can pick it up in a few tries. Same thing with scooping gravy into the torn bit, it just takes a few tries (like chopsticks).

                                        2. re: luckyfatima

                                          My experience generally meshes with yours, though I think we generally ate heavier meals than is typical of other South Asian Muslims. A typical meal included rice, dal, 2 main dishes, sabzi. Sometimes we'd have an appetizer dish like papad or pakoras served with our meals, but they were never treated as a starter course. They just came out with everything else. My father usually also had roti and we would have a salad of lettuce, onions and green chilies along with pickles if so desired. If we had biryani on the table, it was usually considered a dry dish and there might still be another wet dish along with raita. While we used to eat with our hands (and my father still does at home when he loses himself in primal enjoyment of some foodstuff), at some point I decided I didn't like having turmeric-stained fingers, and stopped, though when I am with Gujarati or South Indian friends, we just use our hands. In fact I don't think there are usually place settings when we do South Indian.

                                          FWIW I don't eat anything with my left hand, but I also don't show the soles of my shoes to anyone either, so I might just be very old school.

                                          1. re: luckyfatima

                                            i prepared a mint chutney which formed the basis of a mint raita (curries without worries / sudha koul).

                                            how to consume raita? the raita hits in this thread indicate that spooning it directly into one's mouth or over another dish is a definite no-no, and that it must not ever be used as a dip with chappatas or naan. perish the thought!

                                            so now i'm even more curious about the proper, traditional way to transport raita to my mouth along with the rest of my meal.

                                            1. re: foodvac

                                              Raita is usually used like a sort of a sauce or a substantial condiment served with the main meal, rather than as a stand-alone dish or a pre-dinner dip. It's usually put in a small side bowl or on one side of a plate and mixed in a little at a time with biryanis, curries and rice, or curries and breads, as a kind of a cooling agent. Some people dump a little right on their rice.

                                              But noone here is saying you shouldn't spoon and dip as much as you'd like, foodvac. These are just the traditional ways this traditional food is eaten in India. It's not that different from a person saying that in the West one traditionally does not use prepared mustard as a pasta sauce or put pretzels in sandwiches. No law against it, it's just not how it's usually done.

                                          2. What generous and helpful replies. Thanks so much! My mouth is watering...

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: Bada Bing

                                              Agreed! This thread is so interesting and helpful, and I'd run over my mama for some naan, tamarind chutney, and biryani (though not all together) right now. It's weird, but I hadn't actually given much thought to protocol in Indian restaurants until I read this.

                                            2. In addition to the other recommendations and descriptions, let me suggest also:

                                              1. Whether in a buffet or a la carte, think of the basic desi food plate. It should end up looking like a thali whether or not you are actually eating from a thali (=large plate).
                                              In the 6 o'clock position you have rice OR roti. Rice / roti are eaten one after the other to pick up the other dishes, not together, and never use the roti to pick up the rice :) That's like a bread sandwich. Doesn't work in Indian food. :)
                                              In the other positions, from 11 o clock to 2 o clock, you have servings of the dishes (what you think of as entrees, though they are not really so): protein like dal, paneer, meat; then vegetables; then condiments like pickles etc, then raita/yogurt. You will end up with 3-4 dishes if eating in a group family style in a restaurant, or 2-3 dishes if there is just one or two of you.
                                              You want to vary the colors and textures (e.g. a dry vegetable or two to balance a wet paneer or dal dish; green veg to balance a heavy meat etc.). Salad along the side.
                                              Dal is not a side or sidekick - dal is a protein entree in its own right. A good dal is on par with paneer or meat tastewise, and is often the staple daily protein because meat is expensive, or for vegetarians.
                                              The raita helps to change the tastes in your mouth, as someone put it very well upthread. Plain yogurt is more used to end the meal, often mixed with rice if this is a South Indian meal. Sweet at the end.

                                              2. Papad/pappadum are crackers, not bread. I have lost count of the number of times people describe papad as bread but am still baffled whywhywhy? Papads are eaten as crunchy bits on the side of the main plate to vary textures and tastes, though now restos are serving them as appetizers with chutneys, which is fine too.

                                              3. I agree about the thick sweet mango lassi being somewhat incongruous with a meal. Same goes for thick salty lassi. These are part of the meal, not a side drink, but if people enjoy them that way, then go ahead.

                                              4. There is no concept of courses as such in Indian food, the food is family style and served/eaten at the same time arranged on the plate like I described. The only way this may be different is in South Indian food, where you have rice with sambar, then rice with rasam, then rice with yogurt/buttermilk, then payasam (sweet rice or vermicelli) :)

                                              5. If you are eating a smaller meal, like a South Indian dosai/idli/uthappam meal, then things are a little different. The dosai/idli/uthappam etc is again served 6 o'clock, and you have little cups with the sambar and the chutneys and you rip and dip. There are not other dishes with this, unless you are eating a kurma with the dosai.
                                              These are quintessential finger foods, it's difficult to maneuver a crispy dosai with a knife and fork and then dip and eat without losing most of it on the way. :)
                                              But if you just can't bring yourself to touch your food with your hands, then eat any way you can. :)

                                              Bon appetit!

                                              8 Replies
                                              1. re: Rasam

                                                Nice post Rasam. I especially agree with not using your bread to eat your rice. :) I once went to an Indian restaurant with my family and saw a guy at the next table scooping up his biriyani with pieces of naan. I cringed every time he took a bite, and kept hoping he would look our way and see how we were eating. LOL

                                                1. re: boogiebaby

                                                  Yes, I find that so hard to understand, and have lost count of the times people say / post something like "oh we enjoyed this dish with rice, and served naan bread (sic) to sop up the sauce". Oye!! (slaps forehead).

                                                  1. re: Rasam

                                                    This has been an extremely helpful thread, but I am a little unclear on one point:
                                                    I understand that one wouldn't scoop rice with bread, but would it be unusual to have bread and rice at the same meal?

                                                    1. re: nomadchowwoman

                                                      No, not necessarily unusual. This would be more common in Northern India (a wheat culture), among wealthier people. It's double the food. It would be quite common for a party, or for a large family where some people like one thing and some like another. In Southern India (rice culture) it's typically rice all the way. Rotis are less common there, though things like parotta (regional spelling of paratha, made with refined flour rather than ww flour) are eaten.
                                                      If you have roti and rice in a meal, they are eaten sequentially, not simultaneously.

                                                      1. re: nomadchowwoman

                                                        I don't think it's that weird. People here serve bread alongside pasta, or mashed potatoes and bread and corn all at the same meal. And, of course, people put rice inside burritos and yams on their injera. Seems like most of the world loves some starch on starch action. But, that said, I don't think most Indians eat both flat breads and rice both at one sitting all that often.

                                                        1. re: ninrn

                                                          Indian Mr. Pine won't eat 2 starchs/carbs in the same meal, even tho' he's been in the US over 45 years--it's either potatoes or bread. He's from southern India, so more partial to rice than wheat-based breads.

                                                          1. re: pine time


                                                            I always find servers at Indian restaurants in Canada try to convince me to order naan or other breads, when I've already ordered rice. In the interest of my waistline, I've been trying to stick to just one complex carb lately, at both Indian restaurants and non-Indian restaurants.

                                                            1. re: prima

                                                              Yes, your ordering naan AND rice will expand resto's bottom line and yours :)

                                                2. I'm glad you asked that, Im curious too.

                                                  1. I would like similar insights on other cultures'meals too. I think that I know how to navigate an Ethiopian resto because of the similarities to Indian ways.

                                                    But I would like info on Chinese meals (rice or noodles, or both? and do we deal with the sides by pouring over the rice? and is moo shu even an actual Chinese dish?), and Italian (courses? salads before or after? bread with pasta? where do the vegetables go?) , and I am sure others where I am doing things wrong without knowing.

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: Rasam

                                                      I'm not an expert on Chinese food or anything, but I know that, like chop suey, mu shu is a Chinese-American dish developed here in the 1960's. It's an economical way to stretch meat with cabbage and eggs, and to use up those Peking Duck pancakes. Someone once told me that, especially in the 60's and 70's, restaurant supply companies sold giant plastic bags of pre-shredded cole slaw mix for very low prices, and mu shu was the American Chinese restaurant owners' way of putting that good deal to good use.

                                                    2. It's interesting to know that many of the Indian origin posters don't usually have rice and bread together in daily meals. In my husband's family, they always do. But to be clear it is home made roti. They have live in domestic help and a helper makes fresh rotis while the family eats. My mother in law grew up in India with live-in help and actually doesn't know how to make roti well. They are also major rice people and cannot have a meal without rice, with some exceptions. In Northern Pakistan, people do eat naan on a regular basis in some regions. But for people of my husband's background, roti is normal (phulkas in their house, actually---small light rotis that one puffs up on the stove, nothing better than a fresh one). Naan is never made at home. It is picked up from a special neighborhood bakery...not really a bakery, but a small frontless store inside of which men sit around making naan all day long using a tandoor built in the floor. There are different types of naan particular to various regions of Pakistan. I have seen naan with sesame seeds and nigella, but I have never seen a "garlic naan" or a dried fruit and sugar laden "peshawari naan" like they serve in Indian restaurants. Naan in Peshawar is not like the peshawari naan of the Indian restaurant. There is also "roghni naan" or naan which has been painted with milk before baking and then dredged in butter. The naan in Pakistan, regardless of the type, is also very different than the airy light, bubbly restaurant naan in the US. The Pakistani naan stays soft when it cools down, but the restaurant naan turns into a cracker. The naan is taken with special heavy stews that are usually served as the only dish on the table. These would be items like nihari or paya (goat or cow trotter.) Naan considered to be heavy and fancy not an every day item by people in my husband's community---I reiterate that in other parts of Pakistan, naan is daily fare. The people who do eat naan every day are not such die hard rice people, come to think of it. Some meals are meant to be eaten with paratha, puri, bhatura, or cornmeal flat bread. These are also special meals.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: luckyfatima

                                                        That's very interesting luckyf. I hadn't realized there were pools of "rice people" in Pakistan, though rice grows in so many places in the Northern/Northwestern subcontinent.

                                                        Also interesting to read about the differences between the authentic naans you have seen in Pakistan and the fake resto stuff. I wonder how the Pakistani naan stays soft when it cools vs the tough naans elsewhere. I think I recall eating such naans when I was a child, but it's been so long since I had anything but the less authentic resto style.

                                                        Most people I know eat the home made rotis/phulkas you describe, and naans are fancy fare bought from outside for special occasions. There are also tandoori rotis made in the neighborhood bakeshops you describe. And while most middle class people do have household help producing nice hot fresh rotis/phulkas at meal time, most housewives also know how to make them. My mother has help, but also makes very good chapatis/rotis from scratch with seemingly little effort. I never got past that learning curve though I now think I should just get over it. I am happy with whole wheat tortillas here, though the rest of my family refuse to touch them for Indian food (will happily eat them for Mexican fare). Once in a while I will gear up for pooris. Have you mastered roti/phulka making?

                                                        1. re: Rasam

                                                          I am not so good with rotis. We always use store bought. We get a locally made brand which has a good wheat taste. I don't have time to get into the habit of daily roti making, really. Maybe if I were more successful at it, I would be more eager. Nothing is like those feather light phulkas and I can't make those to save my life. I only get to have them when we go to PK, since we are settled in the US now.

                                                          We usually order tandoori roti if it is on the menu at Indian restos here in the US. The all white flour naan is just sub-par in taste. Usually the tandoori roti is a wheat-white mix, and the more wheat flour the more delicious its taste, although the more white flour, the softer it is right out of the oven.

                                                      2. This is one of the best threads I’ve ever read here on CH and I’m glad to see it revived.

                                                        I have a correspondent from India who observes that Indians abroad in the West tend to adopt the Western style of eating, something like a meat and 2 or 3 sides, rather than the traditional Indian style and, further, that the Western style is spreading back home in India, too, and he laments the changes. Any observations? Is this just his limited experience?

                                                        And a couple of un-related questions: We have a thali restaurant here with Indian style service, not help yourself (Maharajah Bhog is the name, a 4 unit ‘chain’ out of Mumbai) - after you are seated, a server comes around with a pitcher of water and a basin to rinse your hands, then the servers line up, dishing out food from stainless steel buckets onto your thali - 4 curries, 3 dals, 2 apps (the owner calls them that), 2 chutneys, 2 pickles, 2 sweets, 2 salads, rotis, all endlessly refillable. What is perplexing is the rice is not brought out until toward the end of the meal, although one time I was asked if I wanted it earlier. I understand from my Indian correspondent and this thread that the starches should be at the center of the meal so why is this? BTW, the food is Gujarati/Rajasthani if that makes a difference.

                                                        2nd question - I love chaas and order it frequently. At a mostly take-out/catering place featuring Kerala style food I observed one man with a whole table full of food just for himself. He had a pitcher of buttermilk curry (moru?). I asked him how it was used and he demonstrated by pouring it over the rice. Of course I added some to my order and went home and did the same. Is that the way chaas is supposed to be consumed? I’ve always just sipped it out of the glass or cup.

                                                        12 Replies
                                                        1. re: brucesw

                                                          I also enjoyed Maharajah Bhog in Houston. Thanks for recommending it on the CH Houston board. I will be waiting till next year to go back to Houston and enjoy thali again, as the only places near to me that claim to have "thali" really sell a combo plate called thali, but Maharajah Bhog has a traditional thali service and the food is very good.

                                                          Roti/bread first is the sequence in meals which include both flat bread and rice. This because the flat bread is best enjoyed extremely fresh. The rice is also best fresh but can stand to sit after it is prepared. So that is the sequence taken in the thali meal, even though it wouldn't matter since either way the roti will be fresh for you in the thali service. Some thali places do spoon the rice out for you and give the roti/puri all at once, but I prefer the roti first, also. It's the same sequence in traditional wedding meals.

                                                          The chaas in the Gujju/Rajasthani thaali is supposed to be taken out of a cup as a side drink, AFAIK. I don't know about Kerala buttermilk and how they use it.

                                                          1. re: luckyfatima

                                                            We stayed in Kerala for about 6 months, and picked up the ways of our friends there--poured the buttermilk over the rice, usually. However, since I'm from Kentucky and love my buttermilk, I had to drink some plain--they thought that was amusing!

                                                            1. re: pine time

                                                              What I got was considerably more aggressively seasoned than any chaas I had ever had. Chilli pepper in your buttermilk, anyone? But I wound up with almost a quart (this is a caterer and they essentially gave me the last of what they had made that day) and wound up drinking a lot of it straight and loved it.

                                                              1. re: brucesw

                                                                I would consider that to be more of a kadhi than a chaas. We make it in Gujarati food as an alternate to daal made from lentils, as it is lighter. Most often we have it when the main meal has a sweeter or heavier bread alternate like puran puri or dhosa or lapsi instead of the traditional rotli or chapatti.
                                                                Kadhi is basically chaas mixed with ginger and green chilli with addition of some red chilli powder, cumin powder and salt, this is then tempered with a "vaghaar" of mustard seeds and cumin seeds, curry leaves and then occasionally fenugreek. It is finished off with fresh coriander..

                                                                1. re: waytob

                                                                  Waytob, does Gujrati kadhi not contain besan (chickpea flour)? I make both Punjabi kadhi and Rajasthani kadhi, and both contain besan. I know Gujrati kadhi is much thinner, but I thought all kadhis had besan.

                                                                  1. re: boogiebaby

                                                                    Hi Boogiebaby....yes it does, but the ration of flour is very very little in comparison to Punjabi kadhi, and is very much a spiced chaas with just a little bit of chickpea flour to act as a thickener
                                                                    We also have variations of this where we add additional chickpea flour dumplings into the kadhi for when it is needed to be heavier

                                                                  2. re: waytob

                                                                    This was at the Kerala place, not the Gujarati/Rajasthani place and was labeled Moru Curry on the daily menu. Online that is translated as buttermilk curry; there was no besan.

                                                                    I've had kadhi several times.

                                                                    However, pictures online of the two dishes can look very similar.

                                                                    1. re: brucesw

                                                                      They do serve Gujju style sweet buttermilk/yoghurt-besan kadhi plus khichdi as part of the the regular thaali at Maharajah Bhog so you must have had it there, too.

                                                                      1. re: luckyfatima

                                                                        Yes, and at Bhojan where it was much thicker (had a lot more besan) and not at all sweet.

                                                                        I've seen it on the buffet at Vishala but haven't ever tried it.

                                                                  3. re: brucesw

                                                                    @brucesw - what you got was some version of puliserri, (not sure of that English spelling, but it's pronounced pull-i-sheh-ree, with a short i, like "it" and a soft "sh"). It's a very popular Kerala dish, made with thinned out yogurt or very cultured, thick buttermilk. It's not meant to be used to cool you down like yogurt usually is, though, and can be very hot. It's not a kadhi.

                                                                2. re: luckyfatima

                                                                  There is so much to learn not only about the nuances of Indian cooking but also eating. Thanks for that explanation.

                                                                  1. re: brucesw

                                                                    This thread is making me yearn for some REAL Indian food. I don't think I've ever had it... there aren't many Indian restaurants in Australia, or in South Florida.

                                                              2. And now I want dosai, and idli, and sambar, and chaat papri, and my boyfriend's mom's samosas with spicy mint chutney.