‘Right thumb rule’ and other laws of Indian dining
11 Nov 2015
Eating is a necessity, but your hunger is no excuse to throw your manners out the window.
Call the dining table your theatre of sorts, because no matter how badly you want to chomp on the food before you, there are rules of engagement—and, to your hosts, breaking these could quickly become a judgment of what you are made of.
Well, for most, the problem does not lie in forgetting altogether the need for manners at the table. The biggest challenge is figuring out what these are, especially as customs vary from culture to culture or place to place.
There are just no boundaries to what these unwritten rules can be, in fact, and they could be very absurd, even alien, when you’re outside looking in.
But if you’re going to India or are scheduled for a meal in an Indian home, we’ve written some of the rules down, so you can show up with a little more readiness and cap off the meal with a thumbs-up.
1. Wear descent clothes
Women should avoid showing up wearing tight or revealing clothes. While fine-dining restaurants can tolerate women in form-fitting evening gowns or those in skimpily clad numbers, the safe way to go is still covering up—India is a huge country, and people have different sensibilities.
For men, the business attire is a safe choice.
2. Be on time
Multiple people say that your Indian friend will most probably not arrive on time, but you still have to be on time. Just think that they expect that of you.
3. Eat with your right hand
Two important points here: Indians prefer eating with their hands, and with their right hands.
With the first point in mind, you have to wash your hands thoroughly and maybe cut your nails for full-proofing. Most Indians do not traditionally use utensils when eating and, while some households would tolerate you for using a knife and a fork, eating with your bare hands is still the culturally preferred mode.
We cannot emphasize enough what travel guides call the “right-hand rule,” for the second point. In India, the left hand is for unsavoury functions (like removing your shoes at the doorstep of a home), and so the other hand is for social tasks. So, use the right hand for tearing your chapatti, eating, shaking hands, passing food, and even wiping your mouth.
4. There’s a hierarchy
You probably already know that you should bow your head and say “Namaste” to the people you are meeting (Do not shake hands unless they offer a hand!), but what you probably do not know is who to greet first.
The general rule is to greet the eldest person first, and be cautious that physical contact between men and women is taboo. (Note: Do not sit until the host tells you where you should be.)
There’s also a hierarchy when serving the food: The guest is served first, then the men. The women typically serve the food and thus eat later. Note that some homes prefer to use communal bowls instead of serve, but you will probably get first dibs.
5. First offer of coffee? Say no
The custom dictates that you politely turn down the first offer of coffee, tea or snacks. Do not worry that you will have missed a golden opportunity, because they will offer the goods again.
6. Not with your lips
For shared goods — a pass-on cup of coffee, for example — do not touch the lid with your lips. For Indians, the food becomes sullied by then. Therefore, you cannot start with the chapatti and expect anyone else to eat it after you.
7. There’s a proper goodbye
In many countries, you imply that you’re full when you’ve already wiped your mouth with a napkin, or placed the spoon and fork together. For many, too, the last act would be to eat everything on the plate.
But while eating everything is a courtesy to most, leaving a small amount of food will mean to an Indian friend that you’ve already had enough, and you’re ready to leave the dining table. The other would mean that you are still hungry.
If after the meal, you already need to move out, you will have to say goodbye to everyone individually.
8. Unsure? Follow cardinal rule
If you were overwhelmed by the listing, and forget one or two when the engagement finally happens, there’s always one other rule to refer to: Do what the locals do.
Observe how the Indian people do things before doing anything. You might regret assuming you are right.
Written by: Vaughn Geuseppe Alviar