Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of stories about dining etiquette at the county's diverse ethnic restaurants.
From culture to culture, dining etiquette changes. Forks are not always on the left, knives are not always on the right and sometimes, utensils aren't even an option.
Tables manners in Georgia are not the same as table manners in, say, India. But Amit Malhorte doesn't mind fielding questions. As a manager at Armaan Indo-Pak Fusion in Duluth, he welcomes them.
"If you don't know, just ask," he said. "Customs and menus usually vary between restaurants, so it's fine to have questions."
It's a common custom in India to eat without forks or knives. Diners dig in with their hands. Or, more accurately, their hand. Only the right hand is used to eat, as this hand is considered clean and the left hand is thought of as dirty. Pieces of flat bread, called naan, are also used to scoop up food. However, Malhorte said, at Americanized Indian restaurants, diners use utensils. Unless, of course, they just want to use their hands.
"In America, we eat with forks and such. That is only a custom practiced in India," he said. "Eating with your hand is sometimes a practice considered to be lower class. If you aren't lower class, you use a fork."
Despite the portrayal of Indian restaurants in movies and on TV, eating on the floor is only a common occurrence in the most authentic of Indian eateries. Generally, patrons sit at tables and chairs, Malhorte said.
Most often, customers ask about what to order, as an Indian menu's vocabulary is less than familiar to many Americans. Words like tandoori, naan and masala leap from the page, inviting a series of questions. "Is this really spicy?" and "What is in this, exactly?" are common phrases Malhorte hears.
"A lot of people think that Indian food is really spicy, but there are varying degrees of heat," he said. "I'd say the food is 60 percent spicy. It's a medium spicy, though."
Dishes often center on peppers, such as red bell or black peppers, which is what brings up the spice level. Pinches of herbs like cumin, turmeric and coriander, as well as dashes of ginger and curry, too, kick the food up a notch.
Absent from Indian menus are beef entrees. In India, the Hindu religion is strongly practiced, and "we worship the cow. The cow gives us milk, so we don't eat it," Malhorte said.
For those new to Indian dining, Malhorte recommends the restaurant's most popular dish: chicken masala. Made from sauteed, boneless chicken, marinated in a garam masala spice and served with a creamy sauce, the dish is also Malhorte's personal favorite.
"It is our most popular dish," he said. "It's very traditional to Indian cuisine. That's definitely something you need to try."
Indian Menu Decoded
Want to try Indian cuisine but have no idea what to order or how to read the menu? Here are a few common menu items, translated for the newbie diner.
•Naan: Indian yeast bread
•Poori: fried flour flatbread
•Dosa: thin, crispy and spicy crepe
•Dahi Ki Dal: split pea and yogurt soup
•Chana: spicy chickpeas
•Palak paneer: spinach curry with cheese
•Tamatar Aur Matar: tomatoes with peas
•Khorma: cubed lamb
•Undhiu: mixture of assorted vegetables
•Kairi: rice seasoned with lentils
•Uperu: Kannada lentil-spinach and broth
•Menthi Koora Pappu: lentil stew with fenugreek leaves
Palak Paneer (Spinach Curry)
1 pound paneer pieces, or cottage cheese
2 pounds spinach
3 tablespoons onion, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons cream, or sour cream
2 teaspoons garam masala powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1⁄2 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter) or oil
Salt to taste
Heat ghee or oil. Saute onion until light golden brown. Add spinach and cook until it turns into a paste. Add sour cream, spices and tomatoes. Cook for a few minutes. Add cubed paneer to spinach. Cook for about 10 minutes in medium heat. Serve hot with rice or Indian bread. Serves 6 to 8.
Chicken Tikka Masala
11⁄2 pounds boneless chicken
1⁄4 cup plain yogurt
11⁄2 tablespoons ginger paste
11⁄2 tablespoons garlic paste
1⁄2 teaspoon cumin powder
1⁄3 teaspoon turmeric
1⁄2 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cardamom powder
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons cilantro paste or 1 teaspoon coriander powder
2 tablespoons gram flour
5 tablespoons oil
salt to taste
Cut chicken into 1-inch cube pieces. Mix all spices with yogurt and beat well. Marinate chicken in the mixture for at least 4 hours. String the chicken onto skewers, leaving at least a half inch between each piece.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Roast chicken for 15 minutes or until done, basting once with oil. Keep a try underneath to collect the drippings. Serve hot.
Tamatar Aur Matar
(Tomatoes with Green Peas)
2 cups tomato, chopped
1 cup green peas
2 onions, sliced
3 green chiles, chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon ginger paste
1⁄2 teaspoon garlic paste
3 tablespoon olive oil or ghee (optional)
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped, for garnish
Saute onions with all the spices for few minutes on medium heat. Add tomatoes. Cook everything over medium heat for 15 or more minutes with continuous stirring. If necessary, add a little water to get a very thick, chunky stew consistency (a little thicker than salsa). Add green peas. Cook for a few minutes over medium heat until peas are cooked. Simmer for few minutes, garnish with cilantro and serve hot with rice or roti. Serves 6-8.