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You're Eating It Wrong: Indian Food

By Megan O. Steintrager
August 13, 2014

"There's no wrong way to enjoy your food," declares Nakul Mahendro, who, with his father, Pawan, and brother, Arjun, owns and operates Badmaash, an Indian gastropub in Downtown LA. Indeed, at Badmaash, where the name means "naughty" or "against the grain" and the fare ranges from traditional dishes such as chicken tikka masala and saag paneer to mash-ups like chili-cheese naan and a spiced lamb burger, "You could lick your plate and we'd applaud you," says Nakul. "We'd take a video and Instagram it."

Even when Badmaash patrons use their naan to make giant butter-chicken tacos?  "Yes. We just laugh about it, the way a mother would laugh at something her children do," says Nakul, recalling how his mother would laugh at him like he was "a cute little idiot" when, as a child, he'd eat all of the meat out of a curry, then mix the leftover sauce with yogurt and eat that. "My mother would comment, 'You've taken my beautiful dish and turned it into scrambled eggs.'"

But supposing you don't want to be laughed at like you're an adorable toddler — or actually cause offense at a more traditional Indian restaurant — there are some things to avoid. Nakul reveals some of the biggest faux pas, below.

 

Do Order Family-Style

"Not sharing is like basically telling everyone at the table that they can go f*** themselves," says Nakul. He cringes when people come in and each order their own dish, not just because it's rude, but also because they're just going to experience one taste and texture throughout the meal. Nakul compares this to being told you could drive the best car in the world — but you only get to drive that one car forever — or drive all the cars in the world. "I want to be able to drive all of the cars in the world," Nakul exclaims. "There is a whole world of flavors waiting for you!" Eating family-style extends to the bill as well, but with this, make like the head of the family and grab the check. "The idea of paying for only what you've ordered is worse than not paying," explains Nakul.

 

Don't Get Too Familiar

While family-style is the way to go, do be sure to use the serving spoon in each dish to put food on your plate. "If you use your own spoon or fork to serve yourself, we call it jootah, which basically means soiled or contaminated by human contact," Nakul explains. "If I were to take a sip of a drink and offer it to you, or if I were to use my spoon that I've put in my mouth to serve myself something from your plate, I've essentially made your whole plate contaminated." The rule stretches to bread, as well: Don't rip off a piece of bread and put the rest back -- take the whole thing. (At Badmaash, the Mahendros cut the naan into four pieces to make it easy to share without oversharing.)

 

Respect Your Food

Recalling the time his grandfather clocked him for putting his foot on a cooler holding food, Nakul notes, "In India, there's a respect for food — there's a god of the kitchen." One way to show that respect is to only serve yourself as much as you can eat. "Something to do that's right is to finish all of your food," says Nakul. "If you are only going to have a snack, only serve yourself a snack and eat whatever you serve yourself." And if you don't like something, it's okay to say you don't like it, but don't be disrespectful of the ingredients, the person who made the dish, or the food in general. "Don't say, 'This tastes like crap,'" says Nakul.

 

Bread Versus Rice

Good news: you can stop panicking every time a waiter in an Indian restaurant asks you if you'd like bread or rice. "When it comes to roti or naan versus rice...90% of the time it comes down to personal preference," Nakul says.  "Actually, it's a common thing to either be a 'roti' person or a 'rice' person — so much so that it was one of the things my wife and I discussed very early into dating each other.” But he adds there are some traditional pairings. Rice goes with "everything saucy." Think butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, daal and anything with a "wet" curry. "This is because of the level of wetness — the sauce can easily coat the rice, ensuring each and every bit is full of flavor," he explains. Breads like naan and roti pair well with tandoori items like Badmaash's Hot, Spicy Indian Sausage (a kebab) and dry-sautéed or roasted dishes like aloo gobi.  "You typically would not want to have drier items, such as aloo gobi, with rice — the flavors do not mix into the rice," he explains, adding that eating tandoori meats with rice is like eating barbecued chicken with rice.

 

A Word on Utensils

"Do I eat this with my hands?" That's a common question frequently asked in a "vulnerable, excited" tone by Badmaash diners. And though some Indian dishes are traditionally eaten with the hands, Nakul says, "A spoon and fork is the best way to attack your food," unless, of course, you're using bread to scoop something up. Meats and other ingredients should be tender enough that you don't need a knife. Whatever you're eating, eat it one bite at a time — don't "hold something up to your face" (like those butter-chicken tacos).

 

Condiments and Other Concerns

While Nakul sticks to his anything-goes stance when it comes to condiments, he has seen a few things that make him giggle. For example, when people order naan and chutney and eat it like pita and hummus; or when they order chutneys and dump them on rice, instead of using them like the condiments they're supposed to be. "That's not a meal," says Nakul. "It's like going to the fridge and dipping Wonder Bread into mayonnaise or ketchup and saying that's my meal. You need some meat in there — the chutney, like ketchup, is an accent."

For the record, here's what to do with the two most common chutneys you'll find in an Indian restaurant: the green cilantro-mint chutney, which should be "refreshing, tangy, and herbaceous," is generally used with tandoori meats, while the sweet-and-tangy tamarind chutney goes best with fried foods like pakoras and onion bhaji. "It's sweet and acidic, so it goes well with fried things — it works exactly like ketchup," says Nakul, adding that either chutney can be used on samosas. As for the raita or plain yogurt served with many meals, the traditional way to eat it is on its own, between bites of other foods as a palate cleanser, not dumped over rice, mixed into other food or — as one repeat customer to Badmaash does every time she visits — as a dip for tandoori shrimp. Then again, after the fifth or sixth time Nakul saw the woman come in and order the tandoori shrimp with raita dip, he decided to try it. And? "It was awesome."

 
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