When travelling to India on business, you’ll certainly be invited to dine with your Indian business associates and sample their cuisine, either as a guest at a favourite restaurant or in their home. Indians are a very hospitable people, rightly proud of the vast array of delicious foods in every region. There is international cuisine available at numerous five-star hotels and restaurants, but that’s so boring. A little knowledge of the various religious dietary restrictions and local culture can help you avoid any faux pas, but at any rate, your Indian hosts are extremely accommodating. Even the spices can be tamed once you know how.
Photo: Rosa Park
“There is the idea that Indian food is very spicy and it can be, but it’s a matter of how you order it,” says Pradeep Sood, chief executive officer of Starling Corp., a Toronto-based management consulting company for Canada-India business and a director for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Ottawa. “You can have it mild or hot or you can pick the right dishes which are mild by nature. Sometimes the spices can be overwhelming for Canadians not used to Indian food. When it’s a first time eater of Indian food, we would order yogurt to balance it out in case it turns out to be too hot.”
While Sood is confident that almost everybody likes Indian food once they try it, he acknowledges a few odd exceptions: a businessman who carries protein bars with him to eat from under the table and a businesswoman who brings 21 meals with her for her seven days of meetings. “While she only eats her own meals, she deals with it very diplomatically,” Sood says. “She says that she’s gluten intolerant and cannot afford to come here and fall sick. No one is offended.”
While those people miss out, you don’t have to. Here are a few guidelines from Sood on negotiating the dining table in India.
Conversation: In India, people don’t discuss much business at business lunches. It’s very social, with a big emphasis on building relationships. If you’re taken out for lunch, your hosts would like to know about your family and country, typically things outside of the business arena. If the lunch has been arranged in the office, then business conversation may go to the lunch table as well. But even so, it’s still important to spend this time getting to know one another on a more personal level.
Ordering: At a typical Indian meal, everyone shares the dishes. When dining out, each person orders a dish (enough for four or five servings) to share with the table, so you’re ordering for the people there, not individually. Everyone gets a menu card and a choice, but since everyone is sharing, there’s often a discussion beforehand between guests about who is ordering what dish. You’re trying to get a mix: lentils, a vegetarian dish, a meat dish, rice and naan (oven-baked flatbread). The host generally takes the lead and is helpful in suggesting popular dishes, particularly what goes well with Western tastes. Keep in mind that there may be people present who are vegetarian and those who eat meat so it’s best to order a few dishes of each. Chicken, fish and goat meat are the most popular non-vegetarian dishes in India. Many restaurants in India also offer buffets where you have a much larger choice and can pick what you want.
Spices: Spicing is typically done in the kitchen and can be adjusted to your liking. Be very clear when you’re ordering: mild, medium or hot. But since everyone around the table orders a dish and all dishes are shared, some may be spicier than you want. To neutralize the hotness, you can add a little yogurt and mix it right into your serving. You can also eat the yogurt afterward to soothe your throat and stomach. At the table, you will often see Indians eating fresh green chilies along with the meal. It’s very rare that Indians add a spice at the table but they’ll make a dish hotter by adding the chilies.
Religious and cultural influences: There are a lot of people with different religious backgrounds in India, the major ones being Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Jain. Typically in a business situation, people are not offended if you order meat when they are vegetarian. But if everyone at the table except you is vegetarian, you may feel a little out of place when nobody else has any. However, when it comes to two particular meats—beef and pork—it’s best to be observant. If you are dining with Muslim business people, don’t order pork, just to show courtesy and respect. Or if they are Hindu, avoid ordering beef. They may not show that they’re offended—after all, you are the guest—but it’s advisable for any business person to be conscious of whom they are dining with. It’s always good to know what religion your host belongs to and try to respect how they eat to build an even better relationship. In any case, beef and pork are very difficult to get in restaurants in most places in India. You won’t find them on menus very often.
Table service: Even though the dishes are shared, you are still served at the table in five-star hotels and most good restaurants where you would have business meetings. It’s still very British in that the server goes around and serves everyone individually first before putting everything on the table. After that, you can help yourself to the dishes.
Eating: Generally when you eat an Indian meal, you have the choice to eat it either with rice or naan. At home, a lot of Indians like to eat rice with their hands, but you’d rarely see that at a business meal. When it comes to rice, everybody uses a fork; however, you need to use your hand for naan. It’s easy to use your fork in one hand to scoop some meat or vegetables into the piece of the naan you hold with the other. At the end of the meal, the waiter usually brings a bowl of warm water with a lime so you can wash your hands at the table.
Alcohol: When you go for a business meal, typically the host asks whether you would like a drink. No one is offended if you have a beer or another alcoholic drink. But if you’re at a business lunch at the office, you would not have alcohol.
What not to eat: In large hotels, almost all food is safe to eat, but when you eat in smaller local restaurants, avoid foods that are washed in water, such as salad, sliced onion, cucumbers or tomatoes. (The water might not be clean or may be different from what your stomach is used to.) If you eat fruit, choose something such as a banana which has a peel. Generally, anything cooked is safe.
Allergies: If you’re allergic to something, let the restaurant kitchen or your host (if dining at someone’s home) know before they cook. In India, a lot of nuts are used in cooking so it’s important to let people know if you have an allergy. Then they’ll ensure the dish is prepared without that ingredient. While many Indian dishes are cooked with vegetable oil, peanut oil is popular in northern and western India, and sesame oil is common in the south.
Paying: When it comes to paying at the end of the meal in India, it’s always the host who pays unless it’s a dinner or party organized by the business traveller. “In India you don’t need to fight to pay for the bill,” Sood says. “They are very happy to pay for you.”