Deepavali Feasting

RAELENE TAN explores the cuisine and customs of the Indian festival, Deepavali.

The festival of Deepavali, also known as ‘Festival of Lights’, will be observed on Tuesday, 6 November this year, when Hindus honour Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth, celebrating the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. There are lots of opportunities in Singapore to eat festive fare in restaurants or celebrate at friends’ homes. Now is a good time to brush-up Indian dining etiquette, so you’ll feel comfortable and enjoy the party even more!

TABLE SETTING
Depending on the type of restaurant or host’s preference, a table may be set with a thali, a metal tray with several small matching metal bowls for food, or a metal tray with indentations to hold food. All the food is served at the same time, with rice or bread placed in the centre of the individual thali. Or, the setting might be a banana leaf, placed with the glossy side upwards, stem parallel to the diner. Serving bowls of food will be placed in the centre of the table, with serving spoons. In both styles above, cutlery is not used for eating, unless requested, as food is generally consumed using fingers. Then again, the setting might comprise an individual dinner plate, with a fork to the left and spoon to the right. A drinking glass will be at the top right. Serving bowls of food and serving spoons will be placed in the centre of the table. At the table, it is usual for the host to invite guests to eat, saying “Sapudungal” (‘please eat’).

EATING USING FINGERS
In the traditional style of eating, food is eaten using fingers. Only the right hand is used. Being left-handed, I find it quite challenging! Take a small amount of food, mound it smoothly then, fingertips facing upwards, push the food quickly into your mouth, using your thumb. Take care not to get palms involved, only fingertips should be used. Always mix other food with rice, not the other way round.
When your right hand is sticky from eating, you may use your left hand for passing serving dishes around and drinking. The lightly clenched fist of your right hand, palm downwards, supports your left arm, showing respect in using the right hand. Easy when we know how! When eating using a fork and spoon, the right hand is used to pass serving dishes.

TABLE ETIQUETTE
When serving yourself, rice is placed in the centre. Other food is placed on the far (top) side of your leaf or plate each time. Begin a meal by eating one or two mouthfuls of rice first, rice being the principal food. It’s good etiquette to finish eating all the rice on one’s plate, leaf or thali. Upon finishing a meal, when eating thali style the bowls are left neatly on the metal tray. With a banana leaf, it should be folded in half towards your body. The customary festive greeting is, “Deepavali Valthugal” (‘Deepavali greetings’)

**Excerpts from “Indian Etiquette-A Matter of Course” by Raelene Tan, published by Landmark Books.