Indian Eating Customs

Here is the yummiest post of the blog. Indian festivals are all about cooking and eating traditional food. This is a yummy post on the traditional eating habits that we follow.

I will give an account of community eating in Religious Mutts in Southern India. The concept is somewhat similar to the Sikh community kitchens in Northern India. The situation is the same in most of the mutts,especially in Karnataka.The food serving order and items served are similar to any traditional community feast,like say in weddings or any such family functions.The food cooked is strictly vegetarian and is prepared using locally available lentils and vegetables. Once food is ready,it is first offered to Gods. It is later served to the devotees as ‘Theertha Prasada’. The practice is called so because first ‘theertha’ (holy water) is given to devotees before they start eating the food.

Food Serving Order:

Once the pooja is over,devotees sit on the floor in straight rows,giving enough space for the mutt personnel to move around while serving the food. Typically,devotees sit cross-legged and are expected to wait till the food is served fully. Each individual is given a plantain leaf and a glass of water. The plantain leaf is placed on the floor in such a way that the narrow part is near the devotee’s left hand. The devotees are expected to sprinkle water on the leaf,clean it and keep it ready for serving.

There is a particular order in which the food is served. The top most part of the leaf is served first,starting from the left top corner. First,the salt. It is served on the upper left hand corner of the leaf. The spot next to the salt is for the pickle. Next to the pickle’s right,vegetable curries and salads(kosambari) are served. Raita and/or any other snacks are served next to it.

Once the top part of the leaf is filled,the food is served on the lower part of the leaf. On the left corner,lemon rice (or any other variety rice like tamarind rice,coconut rice, ..) is served. On the right hand corner,kheer is served. On top of the kheer,dal is served. The mid part of the banana leaf is empty and is meant for hot steamed rice. On top of the rice,a spoon of ghee is poured.
Logic behind the food serving order:
The usual custom is to eat food with right hand. Hence the items which are not the main course,like salt and pickles, are served on the left hand side of the leaf. As the sweet kheer (or payasam) is to be eaten first,it is served at the right hand side,in  a place where it is easy to pick up .The main part of the leaf,the middle part,is broader and hence is suitable for serving rice,which will occupy more space.
The colorful food on the leaf triggers the appetite and turns on the taste buds.Eating sweet(kheer) first,prevents stomach burns.The rice varieties are to be eaten next,along with curries and salads for side-dishes.Sometimes papads and some other snacks are also served for side-dish.Curd Rice is the last rice item to be eaten.Eating curd rice at the end ensures proper digestion.
Decorum to be followed while eating:
There is a beautiful custom to be followed to ensure that all devotees are served equally.
Nobody is supposed to touch the food,until everyone is served the rice. Once the rice is served,the head priest chants ‘Govinda Govinda’. Only after the chant,that is only after ensuring that everyone has been served,you can place your hand on the food.
First start by eating the kheer and the lemon rice.By that time,the serving personnel come with buckets full of saaru(rasam) or sambhar. Mix the same with rice and have your full. By the time the last person in the room is served the sambhar,the first person would have finished with his/her sambhar. The next item on the menu is now ready to be served to the first person. Sometimes,a sweet or some snacks are also served,in addition to the rice varieties.
Once the sweets are over,comes the last item on the menu,the humble curd rice. Nothing beats the curd rice on a hot summer afternoon. Curd rice is supposed to be had with pickles.
Devotees are expected to wait for the elders/head priest to finish their meals,as a matter of respect. Once the elders are done,the others can get up from their places.
In some places,the devotees are expected to help in cleaning up the leftovers and make way for the next set of devotees to have their meals. In some places,it is not required as cleaning staff are available.

Why I like eating in a Traditional Community Hall

First of all,eating in a community hall,gives us a sense of belonging. Eating in a place of worship,enriches the soul as well as the tummy. More than anything,it is good learning for the kids.
My young son is still not able to mix rice with sambhar at home. We have to make it ready for him. Also,he is more comfortable eating with a spoon than with his hand. But in a common place,he has no option but to learn. He is now more comfortable mixing rice with sambhar or eating food with hands. It is important for an Indian kid to learn these habits also,because this is how we eat traditionally. Moreover,eating in such a community setting and following the community rules while eating,teaches kids a lot of discipline and eating habits.


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