More than any country in the world and more than any other cuisine (in the world), India is known as the place where you share your food with others. Unless you have chosen to go for street food such as Idli, Masala Dosa or Pav Bhaji, Indian people tend to eat their food with friends and family. It is even a common practice to share it with co-workers occasionally. Eating together in India means that you’ll end up with a bunch of people. A romantic dinner with your wife or husband is ofcourse acceptable, but in some restaurants a rare sight. I have shared a lot of insights about food and rituals in previous blogs. India is definitely a food-lover’s paradise, with tens of millions of dinner options which serve culinary evergreens ranging from the very famous tandoor-baked garlic naan breads to the mouthwatering south Indian curries. The very famous Hyderabadi biryani, spicy but sweet mango chutney, refreshing and energizing sweet lassi and gentle cooked palak paneer are some of the Indian dishes that come to the mind while I am writing this blog. However, this blog is not about the Indian cuisine. In this write up I want to share some observations about the Indian dinner rituals and habits. What surprising things could you experience in India?
The most profound way to describe the Indian eating habits is to explain some of them in a chronological order. Therefore, it’s good to start with the dinner invitation. It doesn’t matter if you receive an invite for dinner in a restaurant, or for a home cooked meal in a private setting. In both cases knowing or sharing the food-preferences is crucial. In India, it’s a common thing to openly discuss religious beliefs and anything that is related to it. So, are you inviting friends and family, don’t worry to ask the main and foremost question: are you veg or non-veg? People will respond without any judgement! And please go ahead. Because the simple answer ‘I’m veg’ or ‘I’m non-veg’ doesn’t fully answer the question. India has more vegetarians than the rest of the world together, but there are differences and it’s important to understand them.
Let’s start with the most popular version of veg, the one where everything could be prepared, besides fish and meat. Although I really like to eat meat and fish, I could live on the most popular version of veg if that was the only option for me here. There are plenty of opportunities to prepare delicious dishes. Thus, it is not a punishment to be a vegetarian, especially in India. However, there is more…..A considerable percentage of the vegetarians won’t eat anything that is connected to an animal. So, they don’t eat eggs & paneer (cheese) and all dishes should be prepared with water or oil, ghee or butter are not part of their cuisine. This version is much more challenging, although I have had some surprisingly good dishes. One step deeper into the vegetarian spectrum is the Jain-kitchen. Although they are considered to be a minority group in India, during my stay here I have met a couple of Jains. They are actually really nice, but cooking for them could be challenge: they don’t eat anything that has grown under the ground. So, don’t serve them onions, potatoes, garlic and more.
One would assume that people who are ‘non-veg’ eat meat, right? Unfortunately, things are a bit more complicated. Almost everyone in India who sees themselves as ‘non-veg’ eats chicken, it is the nations non-veg main ingredient. Fish is also eaten by many, while eating mutton and lamb is limited to a smaller group of people. Buying or eating cow meat is considered as an offence in many parts of India. Buffalo is a good and tasty alternative, but rarely eaten and expensive (most of the Buffalo meat is being exported).
Let’s go back to the dinner and the invitation, that has been sent out to all the guests. After the host has figured out everyone’s preferences, a restaurant will be chosen or dinner will be prepared. When a host decides to go for the combined menu with veg and non-veg options, something very funny happens. People will arrive and openly discuss everyone’s preferences in order to create a separate section on the table for veg and a similar one for non-veg. It will not take long before the first starters arrive at the table. I especially like the tandoor-cooked chicken or paneer cubes as a starter, they combine very well with a Kingfisher Ultra beer. India-newbies regularly mix up the starters with the main menu, which more than fill-up you stomach before the main courses are served. Another surprising behavior that could be seen when Indian people consume alcohol. If they drink alcohol or liquor, they will do so during the snacks and appetizer part of the evening. The moment, the main course will be served. Indian people tend to quit drinking. Another surprising thing: after the main course or deserts have been served, the evening will end. People in India usually will not drink tea or coffee after dinner. Finished means finished: they will then go home!