How to Eat with Your Hand Indian-Style

Follow These Steps to Expertly Eat Like a Local in India

A Kerala Sadya, typical Keralite vegetarian dish served on banana leaf, eaten with fingers.
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Eating with your hand Indian-style can be daunting and tricky to start off with. However, it's the best way to combine the different Indian foods together and get the most from their individual tastes. Foreigners are sometimes concerned about lack of hygiene or lack of table manners. Yet, they needn't be. After all, many western foods are commonly picked up and eaten by hand! Some examples include sandwiches, dips and salsas, french fries, burgers and pizza.

The many separate dishes in an Indian meal can be confusing though. Which dish is to be eaten when? Are they eaten all together or in a certain order? Just looking at an Indian meal can be overwhelming, let alone eating Indian food with your fingers!

You'll need to practice a few times to get comfortable with the technique, as there is a special knack to it. However, it won't be long before you'll be expertly eating Indian-style (and enjoying it)!

South Indian meal.
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What Makes Up an Indian Meal

Before you get started, it's important to understand the various components of a typical Indian meal. They can be grouped together as follows (although this may vary depending on the region in India):

  • Indian bread (chapati, paratha, roti, naan, or idli in south India)
  • Side dishes (salad, papad, pickles)
  • Main dishes (vegetables and/or meat)
  • Daal or sambhar (a watery lentil dish)
  • Rice

Essential Things to Know

  • It's clean and polite to wash your hands before you sit down to eat.
  • Only eat with your right hand. The left hand is considered to be dirty, as it's reserved for functions associated with going to the toilet.
  • Eat the bread first with some of the vegetable and/or meat dishes, followed by the remaining vegetables or meat along with the rice and daal.
  • The purpose of the side dishes is to add different flavors and textures to the food. Hence, you should consume a small amount of any one of them after each bite of a main dish.
  • The most important thing is to sample each different dish separately, to allow its individual characteristics to be appreciated. DON'T combine the dishes together in one mouthful!
  • Be careful with the amount of daal you pour onto the rice. Too much daal will result in the rice becoming sloppy, and it won't hold together properly. Too little daal, and the rice will be sticky and tasteless.
  • South Indian meals will be served differently, traditionally on a banana leaf. In this case, snacks (such as banana chips) are placed on the banana leaf first, followed by rice and the other items that are to be eaten with the rice. The items will comprise a range of flavors, from sour to sweet. After you're finished eating, fold your banana leaf in half.
  • If you're eating a thali (platter with an assortment of dishes in small bowls), you can dip small pieces of bread into the bowls to get a taste of the dishes.
Eating Indian food with hand.
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Step-by-Step Eating Instructions

  1. Serve a small portion of each main dish (vegetables/meat) onto your plate. Add items from the side dishes as well, if you wish to eat them.
  2. Using your right hand only, tear off a smallish piece of the Indian bread (around 1 x 1.5 inches in size) and place it over some of the vegetables or meat. If any of the food pieces are too large to be picked up and eaten, press the bread down on them with your fingers to flatten or break them up.
  3. Start eating by picking the food up with the bread. This is done by folding the bread over the food and popping it into your mouth. Next, pick up a bit of one of the side dishes (such as pickle) with your fingers and eat it. Repeat this whole process with all the different dishes, having a little at a time, until the bread is finished.
  4. Now, take some rice and put it on your plate. Rice is traditionally eaten with daal, so you should pour a little of it over some of the rice. Also, add more of the main dishes to your plate.
  5. Here's where things start to get a little messy and complicated! Use all five fingers to work the combined rice and daal, or rice and main dish, into a ball.
  6. Gather the balled-up food onto the tips of your fingers using the thumb, with the four other fingers acting as a spoon.
  7. Bring your hand up to your face, place the thumb behind the food ball and use it to guide the food into your mouth. Kind of flick the food ball into your mouth with your thumb.
  8. Repeat this process as necessary by mixing the daal or main dish together with the rice. Of course, alternate your eating with a portion of one of the side dishes.
  9. Once you've finished eating, wait for everyone else to also finish, and then get up to wash your hands. Often, in a restaurant, small bowls of water with a slice of lemon (called "finger bowls") will be brought to the table for you to clean your fingers in.