What Do Hindus Eat?
How to Feed Hindu Guests.
This is as a practical guide for cooking for Hindus or setting the menu for events with Hindu guests. I'm not Hindu, but I've been cooking for gatherings with a high percentage of Hindu guests in America for the last few years. When taking a Hindu friend to visit non-Hindus I've noticed the diet restrictions causing quite a bit of confusion and exasperation with hosts. I happened to google, "what do Hindus eat? and saw most of what was out there said, "no beef". I thought there needed to be a more complex answer available for anyone who just found out they had a Hindu guest coming to dinner.
If possible, it's always best to talk to the person in question about their dietary restrictions. People vary quite a bit on how strictly they follow tradition, and there are big variations between different Hindu communities.
Different Types of Hindu Vegitarian Diet
These are the most common different degrees of Hindu diet I see. The vast majority of Hindu vegetarians eat milk products. I have yet to meet a vegan Hindu. There are some more restrictive diets, but people following these are not likely to accept a dinner invitation from anyone outside their community.
1. No meat, no eggs
2. No meat, eggs OK
3. No meat except chicken.
4. No meat except chicken, fish, mutton and lamb.
It's important to realize that most practicing Hindus are part time vegetarians. For religious reasons many Hindus will be a different degree of vegetarian on certain days of the week, or for prescribed amounts of time for festivals or life events. The schedules can get complicated with different members of the same family following different rules. Just because you saw someone eat chicken or egg last week doesn't mean they will eat it today. It's common practice to ask everyone, "Are you veggie today?", before starting cooking. When you have no data, it's safest to plan on having both a vegetarian protein and chicken dish available in a buffet format. People who are eating chicken are generally very disappointed to have to eat vegetarian. Once you have those covered, you can start adding egg, lamb and fish dishes for a larger group. Do not serve other meats. Beef is out of the question. Pork, while eaten by a small minority of Hindus, caries a strong stigma. Turkey and duck are not the same as chicken. While some individuals will eat birds other than chicken, I wouldn't recommend serving them unless specifically asked to do so.
Rice fasting also occurs on certain days for some Hindu devotees. For this reason it may be a good idea to have both rice and flat bread like naan or chapati available.
More restrictive diets.
There are communities where other foods are not eaten. For example some Hindus, particularly observant Brahmins may not eat onion or garlic. If you want to offer something to someone following one of these diets, the safest thing is fruit. They will probably be reluctant to eat food out of a kitchen that doesn't follow their diet.
Foods That are Unpopular With People From India
There are some foods that are not prohibited for religious reasons, but will still not go over well with people from South Asia.
1. Raw Vegetables
These are just too dangerous when drinking water is not on tap. Most people coming from India will be very uncomfortable with a salad.
2. Bland food
Aside from rice, bread, fruits and sweets, just about everything is spicy. It's not just hot spicy, it's complex. Very few dishes have less than five ingredients and dishes with 15 ingredients are nothing remarkable.
3. Meat not cut into bite size pieces.
Whole roasted birds are disturbing. The expectation is that meat will be cut into bite sized pieces, the bones included.
4. Unfamiliar Beans
The varieties of lentils(dal) found in India are different from the brown lentils available in most American supermarkets. Chickpeas(a.k.a. garbanzos) and black eyed peas are two legumes easily found in America that would be reasonably familiar to someone from India. This is less of a problem with Hindus who have lived abroad for a while. Many South Indians complain bitterly of channa dal (a.k.a. garbanzo) causing gas problems the same way a confirmed carnivore would complain about beans in America.
Basic Hindu Menu
Mid day, or evening meal
1. Rice and or flat bread. (This should be about half the meal by volume.)
2. Protein curry (Chicken, dal(lentil), or paneer)
3. Vegetable curry (Veggies can be cooked with the protein for a small group, but at least two curries is preferred.)
4. Dairy (Whole milk curd(yogurt) for south Indian, raita for north) Many South Indians feel a meal isn't complete unless finished with plain yogurt and rice mixed.
5. Indian pickle
6. Sweet (optional, but nice for a party)
7. Tea (black with milk and sugar)
Breakfast / Tiffin / Morning meal
Breakfast in India varies quite a bit by region. The south standards of dosa, idly and uthapam are hard to duplicate without special equipment. Much easier is pongal. I'm less familiar with north Indian breakfast items. You may be best off just serving bread and jam, or breakfast cereal and milk. Be prepared to heat the milk before putting it on the breakfast cereal. Another acceptable breakfast is spicy ramen noodles, preferably with a few things thrown in.
Here's a list of non-spicy Indian food if you want to have something to share for a mixed group.
Ethnic Cuisines and Restaurant Dishes found in America That Work With a Hindu Diet.
Indian food or an Indian restaurant will generally be the first choice unless of course your guest/s have requested another type of food. Unfortunately not everywhere in the world has an Indian restaurant near by, or the ingredients to make good Indian food. When Indian isn't available and you want to go out to eat, what do you do?
This can be the best option if you have a mixed group of people with some liking spicy, and some not.. The rice with dishes you put on top format will be familiar to anyone from India. Chinese restaurants are often sympathetic to vegetarians because of the Buddhist tradition in China, and can often accommodate on request. Just be sure to ask if the tofu dishes are really vegetarian. Some are cooked with pork fat. The dishes I've seen ordered most often by people from India are kung pao, curry anything, and general tso chicken. Be aware that Chinese restaurants in India serve completely different food from Chinese restaurants in America. The rice is about the only commonality.
Pizza is very popular in Indian cities now, and in America has become the default thing to serve for a mixed Indian and local crowd. Pasta or eggplant parmigiana may work as well. Pasta and pizza sauce has a base similar to many curries, so it may seem familiar to someone from India, even if it lacks some spiciness. There are bean soups in Italian cuisine, but they often have a meat broth, so ask.
Ethiopian food has a lot in common with South Indian food. The curries are very similar and the injera bread is a lot like dosa, just made with a different grain. There is one problem. Eating off a shared plate goes counter to typical Indian rules of hygiene. Be sure to ask if your guests would prefer separate plates.
Thai food is quite popular with Hindus who eat meat and fish. It's not really compatible with the no meat vegetarians. Thai cooks put fish sauce in just about everything. On the other hand if Thai is the only option, the kitchen will have everything needed to make a spicy tofu/veggie stir fry with rice. You even get a choice of curry flavors. If you ask nicely the cook may be able to help you out.
Mexican food sometimes works with the Hindu diet. The trouble is many Mexican restaurants cook beans with meat and rice with chicken stock. This is not true of all of them though. Call ahead and ask if they have a vegetarian bean option. The burrito chain chipotle has vegetarian beans, and so does Taco Bell. Taco Bell may sound terrible, but if you are driving across America. it may be your only option in many places.
Greek or Middle Eastern
Falafel and hummus are good vegi foods. Pita bread resembles naan. The salads will be a little strange, and the food won't be spicy, but you do have options for vegetarians.
This isn't a first choice, but you can find things on many diner menus that work. Veggie burgers and french fries fried in vegetable oil, and vegetarian chili work for the vegetarians. Buffalo wings and chicken sandwiches work for the chickitarians. Pancakes and omelets are a decent breakfast for those who eat eggs. Oatmeal and breakfast cereal work for pure vegetarians. Cake and ice cream are both quite popular in India. Just stick to mango or vanilla with nut flavored ice cream for best results. Here's a eggless cake recipe that doesn't require any exotic ingredients, can be mixed in the baking dish, and tastes great.
People from India feel it is improper to sit next to someone of the opposite sex who isn't your spouse, child or parent. For this reason it may be best to let people sort out the seating assignments on their own. Do not follow proper British Victorian boy girl boy girl seating.
You may want to avoid insisting everyone sit down to eat at the same time. When people live in extended families, eating in shifts is necessary, and in some places the order of the shifts is part of the culture. People accustomed to being responsible for cooking, usually older women, may feel strongly that it is rude to eat before everyone else has eaten. You can impose your values on the situation and insist, but especially if there is a language barrier, insisting will only make everyone uncomfortable.
Tables are nice to eat at, but not required. I find it's easier to eat Indian food off a plate on the lap than some other types of foods. People from India, even older people, are generally more comfortable sitting on the floor than the average American as well.
Other Cultural Considerations Related to Serving Food to Hindus
In much of India it is impolite to eat in public. You may also have issues with cold tolerance and a strong aversion to being in direct sun light.
Shared Plate - Chips and Dip
The sort of fried snack foods that come in a bag are often the easiest party food to offer Hindu vegetarians, but you may find no one touching your chips and dip unless you put a spoon in the salsa, and a stack of plates next to the chips. It is assumed in India that the fingers go into the mouth while eating. Because of this, once the first person takes a chip, the bowl of chips is considered contaminated.
Indian Pickle - better than hot sauce
Most American and Mexican hot sauces don't pass Indian taste tests. If the sauce is made from just chilies it lacks complexity of flavor. Many people have told me that Indian style pickle is a much better thing to have on the table to spice up bland food. South Indians like to carry gunpowder as well.