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
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,”
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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