Travel | The only way to eat in India

Nothing beats eating on the floor with your hands. Truly.

Eating on the floor

The only way to eat in India is from a banana leaf, with your hand, preferably sitting on the floor. There is no describing this experience. It is wonderful. Interestingly, there are a lot of health benefits from this style of eating, but it also provides an intimacy with your food that is not easily experienced in the West.

Eating in India

If you want to experience this in India, you can. To eat with your hands do this:

  • Wash your hands. Every restaurant, cafe and stall with seats will have at least a hand basin.
  • ONLY use your right hand to eat. The left hand rests in your lap.
  • If you have not eaten with your hand before, watch someone near you – there is a knack to it and it gets easier with practice.
  • Do not lick your fingers.
  • After you finish your meal, take those messy fingers back to the washbasin and wash your hands again.
  • NEVER drink the water supplied with the meals if you are a visitor. Drink only bottled water.

There. Easy. Wonderful. And no utensils to wash! Also, as I mentioned, there are many healthy and metaphysical reasons for eating this way. Perhaps I will post on this in the future.

In my last two trips to India, I have been fortunate to be fed at various ashrams in South India. The experience of mass feeding is wonderful (I am overusing this word), with its own rituals. In addition, feeding people is a spiritual practice in India that you often see in temples and ashrams. In the photo at the top of this post are people from Australia, Ireland, Thailand and USA, at one of our wonderful meals.

Most commonly and traditionally, people sit on the floor in rows, or, for a smaller number of people, around the walls, with a banana leaf on the floor in front of them. More recently, when feeding large groups such as at weddings, and perhaps when the people being fed are non-Indian, long trestles and chairs are used. I prefer to sit on the floor.

Eating on the floor

The banana leaf has a little water sprinkled on it. This is used to wipe your leaf (with your right hand only). Because this is not bottled water, if you are a visitor to India, you might also like to wipe the leaf dry with a tissue or the edge of your dupata.

Then, each element of the meal is delivered to your banana leaf plate by an army of people.


At this ashram, they covered and decorated the roof of the ashram for us to eat in the cool of the evening, with the breezes washing away the heat of the day and the smell of the sea refreshing our minds. The ashram is run by Sri Jeyandrapuriswami who is based in Bangalore – I met Swami and his guru, Sri Tiruchy Mahaswamigal, on a previous trip to India. Swami was kind enough to arrange us to be fed several times in his ashrams in Rameswaram and Tiruvannamalai.

Each person in our army of servers has a large pail of curry or rice or rasam or curd or vada or chapatti or (so many things!), and each deftly delivers the food to our banana leaf. Each item has its assigned place on the banana leaf.


Writing this is making me hungry.

The people are so beautiful, both in looks and in soul, serving us with amazing attention and assisting with our needs.



Have you ever seen a more beautiful person? So full of grace and love.

And so gradually our plate fills with amazing abundance.


Below is a meal, partially served, in Tamil Nadu. I happened to find out that this meal was cooked a half a dozens doors away from the ashram, and carried in the giant pots to the ashram for serving to us. The cooks were unflappable, even one night when their cooking equipment blew up. They just replaced it and went on cooking. The meal was a couple of hours late (but what is that in India?) and we had a lovely time while waiting to rest, talk, plan the next day and relax. (Most of our group did not realise what had happened. It is just that I came across the place that was cooking our meal while wandering down the street one night.)


This is a meal in Kerala, with the Keralan very special red rice. I fell in love with the red rice, quite different from the usual basmati that I use. It is called rosa matta rice, or just matta, or kuthari.

Keralan Plateful

Can you tell that this meal was served in a restaurant and not an ashram? We have napkins! And different types of glasses! Actually, it was a great meal cooked by quite a well known chef in Kovalam. The dal that you see over the rice was my most favourite – Neyyum Parippum.

Before we eat, we receive blessings from the Guru and Swamis.


The food is served in several “courses”, each varying a little in the dishes served, and according to a well known order. Each one fabulously fantastic. Whether 1 or several courses, the serving army comes again and again and again, with more rice and more masala and more dal and more pappadams and more … until you are absolutely full and can’t get up of the floor.

Eating more

Most times, something sweet is served on the banana leaf together with the other components of the meal. There is an order in which to eat some of the items, for example, the curd and the sweet items. For example, it is good to take a small taste of the dessert before eating the other dishes, as it helps to awaken your digestive system. Different places have different customs regarding the curd, but in South India it is mainly eaten at the end of the meal.

In Kerala dessert came in the form of three different payasams served seperately. It was very special to have the opportunity to taste all three together.


Each one was delicious. Sweet. Just right after hot spicy food.

If I have misunderstood some things, or missed any essentials out, or plain got some things wrong, please feel free to let me know in the comments.

The photo of people sitting on the floor is by Thomas Kelly, who joined our trip in India, and took Most Amazing photos.


Author: Ganga108

Heat in the Kitchen, Cooking with Spirit. Temple junkie, temple builder, temple cleaner. Lover of life, people, cultures, travel. Champion of growth, change and awareness. Taker of photos. Passionate about family. Happy.

49 thoughts on “Travel | The only way to eat in India”

  1. Lovely! Makes me want to go to India, NOW.
    And I am smiling at the picture with all the Bisleri bottles in focus.

    Yes, rather funny aren’t they – not such a traditional aspect of Indian eating πŸ™‚


  2. j, look for the red rice in indian or sri lankan stores. it is called rose matta rice. or kuthari. that’s the main rice we use at home.

    thank you for taking us along on this beautiful journey. you are blessed to experience it.


  3. and that dark payasam – there are two actually – one is aravanapayasam. rice, jaggery maybe a dash of ghee, and the other is a lentil or fruit based jaggery and coconut milk dessert called pradhaman. i adore those two.

    hi bee, incredibly special this journey. In all sorts of ways. I am going to look for the keralan rice next time I am in the market where the Indian shop is. If not here, I am sure I can get some in Sydney which is much better supplied with Indian shops.

    Thanks for clarifying the payasams – I am going to look for some recipes. They were delicious. Writing this post made me very home sick for India, even tho I have just come back.

    UPDATE: I called a local Indian shop today, asking for Rosematta – they are out of it but will have a deliver in a couple of weeks. Can’t wait. Can you let me know if there are special ways of cooking it?


  4. Am achingly jealous!

    These posts are something else…transported, I was.

    Excellent tips, too.

    Just one word of advice, Lucy. Book your trip to India today. You will love it.


  5. Lovely narration! Your travel essays have been really captivating. Makes me long for home and its food traditions. Eating on a banana leaf is like no other especially when eating rasam πŸ™‚

    Thanks indosungod. There is something incredibly special about eating this way. And yes, rasam takes a special skill, but I have (sort of) mastered it. Well, mastered it enough to get by.


  6. Beautiful post, and gorgeous pictures. Thank you for sharing these with us.

    Oh my pleasure, Nupur. I am so grateful that I was able to have these experiences.


  7. what a beautiful post, the food, the pics, the experience of eating together, the captions, loved ’em all!

    You are so kind, richa. Yes eating together is a lovely and loving experience.


  8. very neat read….love the pics….the pics capture of the indian meal tradition

    Thank you rachel. Have to admit, they are some of my favourite pics from my trip. Glad you love them too.


  9. This is a really nice post. Nothing like a banana leaf and eating with your fingers, I agree.

    Trestle tables have been popular for a long time, even with Indians, used in weddings or other events where there are large numbers to feed. Have you noticed how they roll paper over the tables, secure it with rubber bands, serve the food on a banana leaf and then use another length of paper for the next batch?

    No, I have not noticed the rubber band fastening of the paper – how fascinating, and practical. I love the photos in your latest post, sra – it looks like a beautiful place. Thanks for filling me in about the trestle tables.


  10. its wonderful that you loved your experience…in many ways, food is almost the soul of travel and discovery of cultures…. enjoyed the pics and the read….

    Hi arundati, i agree. Food, music, spirituality – the essence of a culture. So glad that you enjoyed the post.


  11. wonderful post with beautiful pics. red rice is rosematta rice specially grown in southern karanataka and kerala. unlike other rice it takes longer time to cook and required 3-4 times of water than usual 1:2 rice and water ratio. it is considered to be more healthier than any other rice as it is unpolished and retains its fibres. i like to eat it with the water it is been cooked with(we call it ganji/kanji), a dash of ghee, little bit of salt and spicy tender mango pickle. u might be surprised to know it is one of the comfort foods for many of us.
    thank you for taking us back to our motherland. now i am hungry looking at the pics πŸ˜€

    hi sia, thanks for taking the time to explain rosematta rice. It is an amazingly wonderful rice as it is closer in taste to polished rice than brown rice. I ate a lot of it in Kerala. I love your idea of eating it with its water. I sure will be trying it.

    It was a pleasure to write the post. It took me right back to my time in Sth India.


  12. Hey I love your pictures. But people in modern towns in India don’t eat this way so even though I’m an Indian I’ve never eaten off a banana leaf :(.

    Really? Never eaten off a banana leaf? I have had so many meals this way that I have lost count. Could it be a particularly Sth Indian or Tamil Nadu thing – more prevalent there than in Nth India?


  13. Vegeyum, and bubbleonfire, I could be wrong but I do get the feeling this banana leaf is a South Indian habit. We also use something called a vistari, which is a leaf-plate – it’s big bits of a certain leaf stitched together to make a plate – it’s also used to wrap food for short distances, I don’t know what leaf it is, though. Even in modern towns, small-budget establishments use them.

    Thanks, sra, I never knew this. I wonder what the patchwork leaf plates are made from? When I bought a garland in Kovalam, the garland maker wrapped it in a lotus leaf. I was so in awe, carrying this package.

    I have just found this from Indian Food – are they the plates that you mention? I have seen these in Sth India too, but only very occasionally, and have never eaten from them.

    Does anyone else know about these patchwork leaf plates?


  14. VY, Thank you for this beautiful post with lovely pictures. I do miss banana leaves. They cannot be used twice, hence hygienic.

    Hi Suganya, thanks for your lovely comment. I do love the benefits of banana leaf eating. There are also digestive properties from the leaf itself which are transferred to the food on the leaf.


  15. This post makes me miss home terribly. There are so many things that we take for granted / not think about… because we are so used to it.. so it was great to read your observation of these meals and delve a bit more on the traditions and how everything is done. Thanks. Captivating pictures too. I remember the 3 pradhamans after a kerala wedding too – yummy πŸ™‚

    Laavanya, I am so sorry that it made you miss home. I hope that you are able to visit there soon. Do you know anything about the order that the food is eaten? I know there are some rules, but I am not clear about them.


  16. Hi! Just stumbled across your blog today. Everything about it is great! It makes me miss living in Chennai. Thanks for sharing this.

    Hi daniel. Glad you could join us. You lived in Chennai? How very special.


  17. Good on you!! (To borrow some Oz english) What an adventure πŸ™‚ I’ve gotta say, food eaten like that is simply the best. I miss it too πŸ™‚


    g’day, smita. Sure is the best, isnt it. I have never seen your blog before, so thanks for coming by and introducing it to me. I love the look of your miso dressing with carrot and radish.

    Good on ya too. Avagooweeken. (apologies to those that don’t speak Australian πŸ™‚ )


  18. In my family, the sweet dish (payasam) is served after rasam and rice course and before the curd rice.

    It was fun reading your post. I still have people who make fun of us as we had a banana leaf meal all 3 times at our wedding!

    Ah, thanks for the information on the curd rice. I wonder if this is similar across Sth India? I had a feeling that I had been told that curd or curd rice was last. Of course for some foreigners, the curd it eaten long before then, to temper the heat of the other dishes. πŸ™‚

    Don’t listen to the laughing ones! Stick with banana leaves. No washing up! (oh, and lots of health benefits).


  19. Indians, slowly are forgetting their culture and with it, are also forgetting the pleasures of Indian meal. Especially in South Indian Cities. While the burgers and pizzas are tasty and welcomable, cooking and eating at home seems to have become out of fashion! All the ready made masalas and instant cooking stuff are hopelessly out of taste!

    Destination Infinity.

    I agree, some changes are inevitable but sad. I feel blessed that I have been able to experience many many things in India before they disappear. I think that the villages will maintain the customs a lot longer, but larger cities may not.

    I have some friends in India. One spent a lot of time in the US, but returned home with a new appreciation of his culture and went on to choose a lifestyle for his family that embodies much of the traditional ways. Another who often works in US and in SE Asia told me of his family’s strong support (financial and time) of traditional music and dance, so that these arts do not die out. I visited a place in Pondicherry where the person’s life work was the continued teaching of traditional yoga, music and dance. And on this trip, I met with a group of boys learning the traditional temple instruments of Tamil Nadu.

    So I guess, if we don’t want things to change it is up to all of us, everyone individually to make that effort. (I say “we” here, as even tho I am non-Indian, I also support some of the traditional ways in India. I might write more about this in the future. It is a little precocious of me, I hope you will forgive and understand.


  20. Yes, that’s exactly what I meant, Vegeyum! I’m aware of lotus leaves being used too!

    Oh, great. I love those patchwork dishes! Next trip I will look for them.


  21. This is such a beautiful and evocative post, and it made me very nostalgic for those few times I was lucky enough to eat off banana leaves, usually on special occasions. Thanks for posting this and the beautiful pictures, Vegeyum!

    Hi Vaishali, I hope that you get to eat this way again. I am sure that a lot of people still do this as a matter of course, because in the markets I saw huge piles of leaves being sold, and some autorickshaws packed to the roof with banana leaves.


  22. Hi VY,
    Love the post and happy that you had a great time in india.
    We usually eat food served on banana leaf on auspicious days and on other religious cermonies.
    Neivedyam for god on the occassion of diwali
    which we did in our house.Very happy to use banana leaf on that day but may be lack in arranging thinhs in order.Here goes the link:
    thanks for sharing .

    What a great photo! Such abundance! I love it when the meal has also some fresh fruit, or in one case we had some freshly sprouted mung beans. Yum. I wonder whether anyone has any information about the order or positioning of the food on the leaf?


  23. You’ve made me a little homesick with this post. I can’t remember the last time I ate from a leaf, though most of the times, in the privacy of my home, I eat with my fingers πŸ™‚

    Oh, Cynthia, I hope that the homesickness has waned. I want this to be a celebration of Indian culture and a call to people to be continuing and promulgating those practices that have so many benefits. I love that you still eat with your fingers. I sometimes do in Indian restaurants here, but it is surely unusual.

    I remember a Chinese friend in Australia who married a Chinese girl. When she arrived in Australia she announce to him “We are Chinese. We will eat with chopsticks.” And that stopped any nonsense about them relinquishing core parts of their culture.


  24. Hi VY,
    The South Indian Tradition of Serving a traditional Meal

    A typical traditional meal in South India is served on a “vazhaillai”, a freshly cut plantain leaf. The sappad or food that is served on a banana leaf (even the size of the leaf varies from one community to another) is displayed like an identity card. One look and a guest will know the community, the status, the exact wealth of the family, and from where they originate.

    The top half of the leaf is reserved for accessories, the lower half for the rice, and in some communities, the rice will be served only after the guest has been seated. The lower right portion of the leaf may have a scoop of warm sweet, milky rice payasam, which should be lapped up quickly. While the top left includes a pinch of salt, a dash of pickle and a thimbleful of salad, or a smidgen of chutney. In the middle of the leaf there may be an odd number of fried items like small circles of chips, either banana, yam or potato, hard round discs of spiced, ground dal known as thin papads, or frilly wafers, or vada.

    vineela, I can’t thank you enough for this. It has helped me understand many things that I experienced or observed at meals – for example, when at one meal a person who was serving came and adjusted the positioning of some of the items that had been previously served. Thank you again for taking the time.


  25. You wrote –
    “it also provides an intimacy with your food that is not easily experienced in the West.”

    This is so true.
    Thanks for writing so beautifully abt our Indian ways.

    thank you, Anjali. I am quite humbled by the response to this post.


  26. Amazing photos, I had goose bumps just looking at them! Beautiful people and beautiful food. What could be better?


    I know that experience, Elana. It had been 4 years since I had been in India and it was so exciting to be back.


  27. Hi there! Fantastic post, which almost transported me there. I’ll have to ask my colleague and friend, who’s from Kerala, about the rice you wrote about! We switched from brown basmati to various types of wild and red rice, and we’re currently using a black rice from China. They all take longer to cook, but are really healthy!

    Helen Yuet Ling

    Wow, a black rice. I have seen one in Bali, but not heard of a Chinese one. I hope you get to taste the rosamatta, it is great. Thanks for visiting Helen, I love your posts on Chinese culture.


  28. try rosematta risotto

    and payasam.

    and grind it up in idlis and dosas.

    for plain rice, boil 1 cup rosematta in 3 cups of water for 3 whistles in a pressure cooker, or until done on the stovetop. add 5 cups of water if you want a porridge or kanji. i throw in 1 cup of whole moong beans with the rice when i make kanji and give it 4 whistles in the pressure cooker. add salt and ghee, and eat with pickle and pappadam.

    bee, thanks so much for this – I have just spent the last half hour browsing your rice posts. Loved the one about catching a Sth Indian guy (ie how to cook rice).


  29. What a beautiful post! Gorgeous pics too!
    Thank you for sharing. πŸ™‚

    We use our hands for eating most of the time. Food tastes so much better!

    Yes, TBC, I agree. Food tastes so much better this way.


  30. Eating food off the banana leaf is intrinsic to our traditions and way of life. We still follow this for all festive occasions.
    Different communities have different orders in which the food is served and where exactly on the leaf the food items are served.
    The leaves are usually disposed where the cows finish it off, so the environment is also unpolluted.
    I am happy you got to experience this and enjoyed it.

    Thank you, Aparna. I too love the unpolluting nature of banana leaf eating.


  31. Wonderful to read, not to mention the pictures…I would love to go with my sketchbook and capture all you’ve descrived here.

    Ronell it is so good to have you back! You MUST come to India one day, you will love it.


  32. Aaaaah! Finally catching up on your posts! Beautiful and you have described it very well! Thank you for sharing this is such a wonderful way.

    and yes, eating on a banana leaf is quite an experience!

    Thanks, Arun. One of my favourite experiences, and when I go back to India I can’t wait for eating with my hands at least from a thali and preferably from a banana leaf. yum.


  33. That is a great post, wonderful prose and amazing pictures… You’ve really captured the essence of South India…

    Oh and btw, licking your fingers is totally allowed in the traditional feasts… and you are supposed to burp as long and loud as you can at the end too, to show your appreciation to the hosts… πŸ™‚

    Hi sig, lovely that you could visit, glad you enjoyed it. Also appreciate your correction about fingers and burps. I love the thought of a room full of people showing appreciation.

    One thing I didn’t mention, cos I have to check the facts, is the way that you fold your banana leaf when you have finished, to show thanks. I think it is folded towards you – is that right?


  34. Those are lovely lovely photos. I’ve had the opportunity to eat off a banana leaf so many times, and just took it for granted – but now I realize how much the leaf adds flavor to the food served on it.

    There are some different theories on whether the leaf is folded towards or away from you. Sometimes, you are even told not to fold it, so people can see how much you have enjoyed the food (that you “licked” the leaf clean!). Different events/ functions call for different folding methods!

    Beautiful pictures. I love the Kerala red rice too. There’s another type of red rice very similar to the Kerala one, consumed in Goa (called Ukade). The nutty flavor of the rice adds a lot of character to the food, apart from the health benefits. Being on the same coast, I suspect the Kerala rice traveled up to Goa, and was renamed. πŸ™‚

    I have had the Goan red rice! Quite lovely and redder than the Keralan one if I remember rightly? Although customs would not let me bring any back into Australia, I sometimes see it in our Asian markets here. Goa has so many types of rice, it amazed me. That was before I went to India and discovered the thousands of varieties there.


  35. Here’s a little more about the order in which items are served (this is specific to Tamilians, but I suspect it may be similar elsewhere) – first the sweet dish, usually payasam at the bottom right of the leaf. Then the pachadi (yogurt with vegetables) at the top right, followed by these (right to left on the top half) kosumalli (salad with lentils) the second sweet dish (usually made of fruits), dry curry with coconut, dry curry without coconut, pickle, salt, chutney (if any). The bottom is dominated by rice at the centre and to its left may be placed the appalam or chips.

    This is all in order of serving. But it is not rigid and may be changed slightly at different places and on different occasions.

    Sambhar and rasam are served directly on the rice.

    Usually, there is also a break between the second (rasam) and third (yogurt/buttermilk) courses to serve some more payasam. But these days payasam may also be served in cups placed alongside the leaf. In which case, this sweet break is omitted.

    Thank you very much! I had never realised before I posted this how ordered it is. Thank you again.


  36. Is there a reason that Indians and some other SE Asian cultures only eat with their right hands? Students were watching a video today and it stated that they only wash their right hand before they eat because that is the only one they eat with. The class was wondering if their is a significant reason for only using the right one. Great website by the way!

    Hi Teresa, thanks for dropping by and being open to learning about another culture. I altered your comment just a little, because it sounded a bit like this was a culture to be observed and wondered at, rather than engaged with and learned from. Stick around – you will see that I really committed to this. So many people want to “observe” and “do things to” other cultures without any real understanding of the culture – just an attitude that “their own way” is the best way. I see it a lot. Recently I went to a seminar for people wanting to do business in India and China, and the sentiment was “here is a market ripe for the picking” rather than engaging and understanding needs, and meeting those needs. Building understanding is great, and I applaud you working with your class this way. I am sure it wasn’t your intent, and I wanted to make that clear. Thanks for listening to my passion about respecting other cultures.

    And to answer your question. Yes, there is a real reason for using the right hand. You see, many countries do not traditionally use our Western-type toilet “furniture”. Not only is there nothing to sit on while doing your business (you have to squat – much more healthier for the body), toilet paper is not used (much healthier for the trees and the environment). Instead, the area is washed with a small hose that is available next to the toilet, or a small bucket that can be filled with water and this is used to wash.

    Quite sensibly, then, the hand used for ablutions and the hand used for eating have traditionally been kept separate. It is not only in India, but also other parts of SE Asia, such as Indonesia, where this is traditional. And therefore, as you will only be using your right hand for eating, it is the only one washed – to avoid it being touched by the left hand.

    Traditions are usually built around a strong reason for the practice. In this case, it is a tradition that has been used for many many centuries, and has saved countless lives through the absolute cleanliness observed. There is no choice about whether to wash hands before eating, as there is in the West, one does it before and after eating routinely.

    Hope this has helped.


  37. This is a wonderful post about typical South Indian Meal and the hospitality. By reading this post I remember our festival days.

    In our festival days our (South Indian) family ladies cook food and serve it to all of the family members, friends, and relatives in the banana leafs. Eating food in banana leaf gives you amazing taste…! The final item of our meal is Payasam….a sweet. You need to have a special practice to eat it in banana leaf. Thank you ladies…! (Especially our Amma s (Moms))

    I really miss our banana leaf meal…!

    Thanks for the beautiful post.


  38. You have written this so beautifully. I remember a dinner where my son who only eats with his fingers and not spoons was made fun of by some children. The parents did not bother to stop them either and laughed. I naturally explained the hygiene factor as well as the experience felt while eating with one’s fingers but it was lost on the pseudo-fashionistas there. It makes me feel so good to see such a post! I just hope people realize that eating with one’s fingers is not the same as licking trickling food down to the elbow!

    My son still continues to enjoy his food with fingers meanwhile:)


  39. Each part of the plaintain tree like the leaves, inflorescence and the core of the stem is enriched with medicinal powers. It is commonly believed in India that eating food from the banana leaf boosts appetie and taste. Moreover, it is also good for eyesight and beauty.
    The core of the stem, used in curries, is good for stomach dsorders, is an ideal medicine for diabetes, useful in wieght reduction and very good for dissolving kidney stones.


  40. Lovely post….i’m starting to miss home and Indian meals made by my granny! Hope you have more trips planned to India…Thr is a lot changing, but hopefully we will still have places to remind us of our roots!


  41. It is a great thing to read that people from across the world sees our tradition a good one. i always thought that we indians dont have manners when eating out. and without using spoons and knifes how the foreigners will think of our custom. and i am very happy to read your enite article. . i hope you will come to india later also.


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