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Whether it's Roti or Rotisserie: Etiquette for the Holiday Meal

By Mona P. Kapadia

Photos by Kirti Patel

In the life of a South Asian American, cultures often clash and generational gaps can turn into chasms. The holiday season highlights one of the biggest, often disregarded, differences between the two cultures: the physics of the evening meal. Americans and South Asians have different dining rules. This Thanksgiving, whether you’re having roti or rotisserie, make sure you are properly armed with the right tools—rather, the right utensils—to have a pleasurable dining experience.

When dinning in a South Asian home, be sure to remember the following tips:

1. It’s always polite to be on time, but when you are dining in a South Asian home, “on time” is a relative concept. Commonly known as “Indian Standard Time” or the “Two Hour Rule,” South Asians have their parties and meals at a leisurely (read: late) pace. While dinner might not actually start until thirty minutes to two hours after the invitation time, don’t worry! There are usually plenty of snacks around to hold you over.

2. Be sure there are no holes in your socks! South Asian families expect you to take your shoes off at the front door.

3. South Asian families often work at two extremes. Some expect you to limit your conversation at the table—there are old-fashioned Indians, for example, who view the dinning experience as a scientific and spiritual experience. For them, this is also a practical issue; you should concentrate on your meal in order to ensure proper digestion. Other families see the meal as a time for boisterous discussions on anything from the BJP to the cousin who should be married by now. Be prepared for either extreme.

4. Elders and, in some households, men should be served first before young people and women.

5. Your mother has probably said it before, and we are going to say it again: Finish what’s on your plate. The South Asian cook--usually synonymous with the South Asian mom--is very sensitive about her food. Don’t do anything to make her think you do not like her cooking.

6. Most foods are eaten with your hands. To eat roti, a round flat piece of bread, tear off a piece and use it to pick up some of a vegetable or meat dish. While hardcore South Asians eat rice with their hands, this is not an absolute requirement. Feel free to use a spoon or fork if you feel more comfortable that way.

7. Especially in the first generation South Asian home, women are expected to clear the table and clean up.

8. Mukvas (also spelled mukhwaas), a mouth freshening mixture of ingredients, is eaten after each meal. The South Asian answer to after-dinner mints, mukvas act as hygienic aids and breath fresheners. The mixture is a common ingredient in paan, and is made of many types of dry ingredients. Supari and fennel seeds with different flavorings may also be served.

Americans have some standards that correspond with the Indian table manners, but others are quite different:

1. Wait for the hostess to be seated and take the first bite before you begin eating. At a large gathering, wait for a few of the other guests to start their meals before you do.

2. The napkin is not just for protecting your dinnertime clothing--it actually functions as a communicator. When the host unfolds his or her napkin, the meal has begun. You can then unfold your napkin and put it on your lap. If you have to leave the table during dinner, place your napkin on your chair to let the server know that you will continue eating when you return. If you put the napkin on the table, your dinner plate might be prematurely cleared away, which would be a heartbreaking waste of good Thanksgiving stuffing.

3. Traditionally speaking, a man waits for the women to take their first bites of the meal before he starts eating.

4. Do not talk with your mouth full and do not reach over the table to get something. Use the proverbial, “Please pass the salt,” instead.

5. Never put your elbows on the table while eating.

6. Don’t pick up food with your hands--use some sort of utensil. Depending on how formal the meal is, there might be special silverware for each course. Here’s a rule of thumb: work from the outside in, ala Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Use the utensils furthest from the plate for the first course, and those closest to the plate for the last.

7. While you should not stand up during a meal, excuse yourself if you absolutely must leave the table.

8. In formal situations, men should stand up when a woman is seated or leaves the table. (Rule number seven is exempt in this case.)

9. Once you finish eating, leave your plate where it is on the table. The way to show that you have finished your meal is to put your knife and fork side by side, diagonally across your plate. You can also remove the napkin from your lap and place it next to your plate.

Mona Kapadia, 26, is a Senior Analyst for an investment banking firm. She will be avoiding the proper holiday dinner altogether by escaping to Mexico for Thanksgiving.

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