Dining In Punjab
Updated: Jan 13
Ah the exotic that is India and dining is no exception and is based on the cultural premise that eating is a sensual activity to relish. Touch is part of the experience along with the taste, aroma, and its presentation. The etiquette of dining varies with the region of India and personal beliefs, as with much of their culture.
In Punjab friends and family will gather together to dine and will sit usually around a table unlike other regions where they are seated on floor mats. Traditionally the woman of the house will serve everyone, ensuring that glasses are topped with water and roti is served hot as needed. She will typically eat after everyone is satisfied or join the table whilst continuing to ensure everyone is served as needed.
Food is served on large individual plates known as thali, with portions being separated in small bowls or some thali are actually divided into separate sections. (Also note that an Indian Thali can be used to refer to a dish/meal that is served in a similar fashion with many small bowls of curry and accompaniments.) The meal may consist of a portion of curry, homemade yoghurt served with a spoon of homemade butter (makhani), pickled vegetables, salad and of course roti. The salad usually includes daikon radish, raw onion, tomato or cucumber cut up individually and kept separate rather than mixed into a salad.
Roti, which is an Indian flat bread and can also be referred to as chapatti, is used to eat your curry with. Fingers are used to tear the roti into small individual pieces and fold into a small pocket to scoop a desired amount of food. Therefore there is little to no use of cutlery with Punjabi dining except for perhaps a small teaspoon used to mix the curry, given that the roti acts as a utensil. For larger foods such as chicken drumsticks, for those who do eat meat, it is acceptable to use your hands or cutlery.
Whilst I have read many articles that state that chewing with your mouth open and burping are considered rude, it is quite the contrary from my experience. In fact it would seem that it is considered good manners to do so as this shows that you are enjoying your meal.
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Though when it comes to dining in South India you will find that utensils aren't used as it is expected that you eat with your hands. However only the right hand is acceptable, as the left hand is considered unsavoury since it is the hand that is used to wipe your bottom and to do other dirty tasks such as putting on shoes.
Sikh's are strict vegetarians due to their spiritual beliefs of not taking another's life, therefore serving utensils must not be mixed between non vegetarian and vegetarian meals to avoid cross contamination. A Sikh also cannot touch any utensils that may have touched non vegetarian foods. It is considered bad manners to share any utensil, glass or food that you have used as it is considered unclean.
Punjab is a major producer of wheat, rice and dairy products, therefore these products also form the staple diet of Punjabi people. Dairy products such as clarified butter, sunflower oil, paneer and butter are used in cooking. Beef and pork are not consumed in the state of Punjab due to religious prohibitions, so you won't be able to find bacon. Alternatively those who do consume meat will eat goat, chicken or lamb as an alternative.
But you will find that the vast majority are vegetarian and as such there is a wide array of traditional vegetable dishes. Predominately they will cook with chick peas (choley), lentils (dahl), peas (mutter), potatos (aloo), carrots (gajara), mustard leaves (saag), cauliflower, paneer (homemade cheese) and tofu.
You will find that in most households curry is typically consumed for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A large pot is prepared for dinner and left overs consumed the following morning for breakfast. Roti which can also be known as chapatti, will always be prepared fresh and consumed immediately or shortly after. It is traditionally cooked on a small flat pan known as a tawa, or it can be cooked in a tandoor which is a large clay pot heated with coals at the bottom. There are other forms of Indian flatbread that are traditionally consumed for breakfast with curry, such as paratha, which is a thicker style of roti as it is layered with a filling such as spices or potato.
Poori is another Indian flatbread that is deep fried till it is crunchy to the bite, almost like a large pappadum made of wheat. Some form of dairy can also be served as an accompaniment such as lassi or homemade yoghurt. Tea, known as cha, will be served early in the morning upon waking, while breakfast is not normally served till late morning. Lunch is not necessarily eaten unless you are particularly hungry, so it is an individual preference.
Within one's home, hygiene is of the utmost importance, however you will find that with street food or restaurants this is a completely different story. Even locals only eat out on special occasions to avoid food poisoning as it is usually expected that if you dine out you will have some degree of food poisoning the following day. This is because there simply is no legislation in place to enforce a minimum standard of food preparation and hygiene. Although don't let this stop you from experiencing the many wonders of Indian cuisine, just do so in moderation.
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If you do indulge in street foods then try to avoid foods that easily perish, such as dairy foods or meats. Though if you do consume dairy or meat, just be alert for signs the food may already be expired, and only eat small portions. Boil any drinking water that is not securely bottled and be careful of bottled water that appears to have been tampered with. As it is common practise to simply refill empty water bottles with tap water, then glue the lid back on so that it appears to be a new water bottle. For more detail on how to avoid becoming sick in India then read my article on How To Avoid Delhi Belly.
As these practices helped me to avoid becoming deathly ill since I certainly had my fair share of food poisoning whilst living in India. You won't be able to avoid all illness though it will reduce the severity of symptoms by far.