How to eat at an Indian buffet

There is a proper way to eat at an Indian buffet which those who are not desi may not appreciate. Being desi myself, I feel that I’m qualified to advise others. But my qualifications to pontificate on this topic don’t end with a blanket ethnic designation. In an earlier era, I was a graduate student who subsisted solely on a fellowship. Back then most of what I ate in my apartment fell into three food groups – chicken, rice and spices.

As a non-vegetarian desi, I’ve always preferred chicken drumsticks to the drumsticks that come from trees, and so this guide primarily deals with the non-vegetarian Indian (or Pakistani or Bangladeshi) buffets that serve the common generic dishes.

Your preparation for eating at a buffet should always start much before you actually go to the restaurant (which hopefully you’ve selected after extensive research). You should also decide on an optimum day to go to the restaurant. If the restaurant has a buffet for both lunch and dinner, go for lunch. Meals for lunch are almost always cheaper. Also try to avoid going on a weekend or a holiday, since many restaurants charge more on those days.

Once you’ve made long-term preparations by deciding on a day you’ll go for lunch, you need to prepare for the meal itself. The day you plan on eating at the buffet for lunch, you must skip breakfast. This is essential to making it count. Expert buffet-eaters are also adept at timing their lunch buffet to just before the close of lunch so that they don’t need to eat dinner either. A little secret is that drinking cups of black coffee or another caffeinated beverage approximately two hours before the first morsel is ingested is helpful for eating more food. Caffeine stimulates acid secretion in the stomach which if timed properly has the effect of making you feel hungrier than you would otherwise.  And don’t worry about the long -term effects of stomach acid; if you’re a graduate student, your stomach is probably already non-stick from all the teflon you’ve ingested cooking your meals with cheap pots and pans anyway.

Now, once you’re at the restaurant and have been seated here, follow a game-plan. Stick to the water; don’t order any beverages off the menu. Scan the buffet area and commit all the dishes to memory. Then go back to your table, look at the menu and identify which entrées are the most expensive to order à la carte. It is inconsequential whether you like these entrées or not. The purpose of eating at a buffet is to get the most value for money by selectively feeding the face with the most expensive dishes. As a general rule, avoid the rice, samosas (and other fried food), raita, and dal. Gulab jamuns are usually microwaved straight out of cans, so don’t go near them. Paneer dishes never have any paneer, so you can avoid those too. At a quality buffet, there will at the least be a lamb, goat, or shrimp entrée. You should be good at fishing out only the high-value bits from the curry with an elegant, clean Azharuddin-worthy flick of the wrist. If a cooked-to-order masala dosa is offered, you are permitted to eat the dosa, but not the potato-based masala. The rationale behind this is that even though the dosa is made from cheap ingredients, it is a value-added product because of the specialized expertise and time required to make it properly. If you eat the tandoori chicken remember not to pick off all the meat from the bone as you would at home. As a rule of thumb, round up 0.5 or greater of consumed food-unit to higher whole number. If others stare at you, it is their problem, not yours.

Like magicians, most competitive eaters have techniques which they will not share with others. One fail-safe trick of gluttony is to eat rapidly before metabolism catches up. But, remember that you are pitted against desi restaurateurs who will try to thwart your noble objectives by making curries as oily, creamy, and hot as possible. So, tactically it is to your advantage to avoid the gravy altogether.  And don’t let the heat get to you. If your face is on fire, don’t stop. Pain is the new pleasure.

Leave as soon as you’re done eating and before you feel nauseous. Don’t add a tip to the bill. As you leave, fill your pockets and palms with as much saunf as you possibly can.

With practice you’ll be good at inflicting the maximum amount of damage for your own basal metabolic rate. Until then, bon apetit!

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

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73 thoughts on “How to eat at an Indian buffet

    • Haha… thanks for reading.

      I have mixed feelings about naans. Some restaurants make them quite doughy and hard to eat. Maybe because they are on the buffet counters all day. At others, they are so scarce that I feel compelled to eat them. This is not because they are always well-made, but because from a microeconomic standpoint the demand vastly outstrips the supply.

      Take care. :)

  1. Expert buffet-eaters are also adept at timing their lunch buffet to just before the close of lunch

    See, this approach I disagree with. As an expert myself, we get there about 10 mins before the buffet opens, so that we are not scraping the bottoms. Also we get to time it so that we can stuff our faces over and over again until the buffet closes and eat everything they have on the buffet.

    • That is an excellent suggestion! I guess if someone ate from 11 AM to 3 PM that would give them four hours to apply this long-drawn approach. It is a good alternative for those who can eat for a while. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people.
      :P

      I will share this with the glutton-guru who recommended the 2:45 PM approach to stoke up hunger and make it count for the whole day.

  2. Please do not change your plate everytime you approach the buffet counter. Remember that change of plate is counted as additional pax.

    There are some myths (and legal regulations) around hygiene prevalent in the western world. Abandon and ignore. To other’s peril.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I think we have different customs and standards of hygiene in our part of the world.

      Ok, Ouch. I shouldn’t have said that, given the backlash associated with the use of that comment at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

      You’ve brought to attention a valid point. I’m never sure why it is always expected that you get a clean plate whenever you go up to the buffet table. Also, you have to hang on to your cutlery sometimes. Sometimes the staff will try to take away a fork to get you to stop eating. At that point I resort to using my fingers.
      :D

    • I’ve started to eat more ever since the prices of commodities went down due to the recession. I still go to restaurants where the turnover of food is pretty rapid, but I’ve found creative uses of leftovers these days.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. I indulge in an Indian buffet every month or two, and as a gori-culture vulture, I appreciate some of the new true desi techniques I learned here, especially about coffee in advance of buffet. “One fail-safe trick of gluttony is to eat rapidly before metabolism catches up..” Brilliant! I need to keep all these new tips you’ve provided in mind, now that I’ve got a new found acceptance of plumpness. http://bit.ly/9NvBPI
    All the best!

    • Hi Sitaji.

      The weirdest buffet which I’ve been to is in the US is a joint called “Gandhi Temple” (or something similar) in Anaheim, California. The breakfast one featured sausage, ham, bacon and other decidedly non-desi breakfast items.
      :)

      • I just remembered something that you and other buffeters may find useful! My gora brother has a problem where he perspires when eating some Indian foods, not just a bit of sweating, but real dripping, running down his face sweating. He love Indian food, and has it regularly despite the reaction, it’s sort of part of the experience. I think he may have a reaction to turmeric, since that’s one of the only spices sort of unique to more Indian cooking, and it’s only Indian foods which cause the reactions, and it’s not the chillies, since he has those in other foods sans reaction. Anyway, staff at several restaurants have expressed grave concern over his regular reaction, and he’s even been offered FREE DESSERT at Indian restaurants when he eating ala carte, sort of an apology for his sweating reaction. So next time you want to upgrade from a buffet, bring a little spray bottle and apply water/oil to face n bathroom and return to seat and you must may earn a free dessert and maybe some chai!!!

  4. True and typical of many indian homes , other than dosa other live offerings are pizza n pasta which is a must try. Always ask for premium ingredients like olives , brocolli n other exotic spices. Frequent visit to bakery section containing all those exotic pastries is must n who says you can have dessert only once. Bon Appetit.

    @vikaspgoel

    • Thanks for dropping by. I’m not a huge fan of pasta myself, but your comment reminded me of the story of a student who had arrived stateside from India.

      One day, while ordering a sandwich at a Subway restaurant, he was asked what condiments he wanted. Just because it costs the same to get as many toppings as possible, he asked for them all even though he didn’t particularly want or need them.
      :)

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  6. I’m a great lover of all you can eat buffets, because I do just that – eat all that I can. Additonal drinks are a no-no. If they are included in the buffet, why not! Same goes with naan or other bread, except dosa- which I’m not a big fan of anyway,(except Aapam, in which case I may order a couple more than I can handle, just in case I need (want) more). Desserts are meant to flush down the food, and after a grand buffet, any amount of flushing is more than welcome.

    • I will often take a piece of naan and bite a little bit now and then to cleanse my palate from all the rich curries.

      And as they say even if you’re full, “there is always space (and time) for dessert”.

      Thanks for reading.

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  8. haha – this is great! I wish I had this guide when I was an undergrad in Pittsburgh. We’d use to go to India Garden on Atwood or Taste of Indian on Craig Street and , in a testimony to the gluttony of the human race, would completely gorge ourselves with as many items as we could fit onto 4 or more platefuls. We would then follow this up with a serious round of beers/drinks at the local watering holes. Needless to say, I look back at those moments with regret.

    I do have to disagree with avoiding the gravy dishes. Thats the only reason I used to go. My advice would be to lay off the rice and naan since these tend to bloat in your stomach when mixed with gravy.

    • Holy Moly, a fellow Pittsburgher! India Garden had the particular charm that the a la carte menu was half-price from 11PM. This led to a multi-step gorging algorithm when a double-dose was in order (on Sundays, when the dosas were on the buffet): go for lunch around 2, and focus especially on the dosas and chhola bhaturas; by 9 or so, when you are nice and hungry, find the bar that does a late Sunday happy hour, and get sozzled for cheap; finally, line up in front of IG at 10:30, ogle the passing Pitt chicks till 11, and barge in for the half-price menu. Oh, happy days!

    • Thanks for the tips, folks.

      Depends on the restaurant, I guess. I usually avoid the gravies because many of the places bulk them up with dairy (heavy cream or yogurt).

      I’ll definitely stop by when I’m in Pittsburgh.

  9. If pure calorie return on investment is the prime motivation, there are probably better choices available in typical suburban chain restaurants, particularly pizza buffets such as CiCi’s.

    However, I prefer to approach Indian/Pakistani from a quality perspective, and instead maximize the deliciousness of the food with respect to price. As a “plain-old-white-guy,” it’s not something I eat every day, perhaps twice a month. I live in a large city with a substantial desi community, so there are many choices, and I have tried them all several times. These days I mostly eat at a small Pakistani restaurant, my favorite dishes being hunter’s beef, chicken hara masala, lamb biryani, and an extremely rich saag paneer. The food is quite heavy and portions enormous, such that even a champion eater would have a hard time finishing an entree and side. However, the prices — while modest — are still high enough to make it non-competitive with other buffet options. But from a quality-price standpoint, I don’t think any other restaurant in the city can be matched.

    • I love your term “pure calorie ROI”. :)

      As someone who was trained as a researcher, I like the way you think

      Incidentally, like you, I go to local Afghan/Pak kebob joints which serve sumptuous portions as well. Though once in a while, I do admit craving Indian buffet food, I’ve mostly stayed away in recent years.

  10. Microwaved?

    Man – you are seriously slumming it.

    Living in north virginia – I cannot think of any good (and they’re not very expensive either) Indian buffets around here that microwave the samosas & galub jamuns.

    I can think of 2 – and those places are awful and avoided by all right thinking individuals.

    This is heresy. You must live in an awful, sad, desolate backwards part of the US.

    I advise you move.

    • ROFL. That is hilarious! Thanks for stopping by.

      This is heresy. You must live in an awful, sad, desolate backwards part of the US.

      Apparently, you and I both live in the same part of the US. :D

      Back to the post. I do travel a lot, so that might be part of my problem.

      But microwaving gulab jamuns and samosas to reheat them isn’t that uncommon across the length and breadth of the US is it?

  11. Anirban,
    You have accurately captured the habits of that intersection (on the Venn diagram of life) of Desis and grad students. Being one of those myself, your article made me want to go out there and find some more free food to round off my weekly quota!
    Renuka

  12. Lovely! Another tip – sit as close or better still, stand within serving distance of the buffet table. Also IB veterans have known to feed a family of five with just one buffet plate!

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  18. Well done, Anirban, brilliant and very funny.

    And Vikram; When I was a student, I worked at two high end restaurants (French and fusion) and they both used microvawes and canned stuff, in addition to freshly prepared. All restaurants mix and match. If you believe IBs prepare everything from scratch, I would hate to be the one to break your illusion.

    • Also many of the smaller Indian (and Chinese) restaurants are mom-and-pop joints by first-gen immigrants trying to get their children through college. They’re nice, but not exactly culinary aficionados.

      • Nahl, they’ll just think your crazy. Ask to talk to the manager/person in charge and tell them exactly what the problems you were having was. May not solve anything, but at least you’ve given them an idea of what they need to fix.

        Of course, if you still feel angry, walking out yelling is still available, if you want everyone to think you’re a nut job.

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  22. OK. I’ve been to every type of buffet from almost every ethnicity. Also I have been involved in several all-you-can-eat scenarios including all you can drink.
    Personally, my opinion on the desi buffet is that if you go too early the curries may not be thick enough and the full selection may not be out yet if you go too late the selection may be depleted and the meat may have been picked out by Anirban already.
    I also like to make my own lemonaide at the table with the lemmons from the salad and the sweetners at table and my ice water.

    If you really want to eat alot at a buffet though you must stretch your stomach by eating and drinking alot the previous day, but not the kind of foods that will fill you up. If you ate a whole head of lettuce and drank several glasses of water before bedtime the night before your stomach will be elarged and ready to eat more. Plus the lettuce will clean out your lower GI tract.
    Don’t smoke as it will curb your apetite.
    These may not be good for muslims, but will help you eat more.
    Also, smoke the funny stuff.
    Alchohol also inhibits the body’s mechanism that tell you that you are full.

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  24. haha, the restaurers have a well known trick up their sleeve.

    That is the dreaded Baking Soda in the buffet. Eat a little, you’ll feel full. Eat the same amount in a la carte, and you’ll be surprised to find yourself not so full!

    Often, most buffet items are loaded with soda, which makes you feel full, and later on pass wind or burp a lot!

    The only difference between a very cheap buffet and an expensive one is the amount of baking soda to use for each dish. More baking soda means less amount of food consumed, hence less cost :)

    • Heh heh… Thanks for reading posts at my blog and liking them.

      I fear my own buffet prowess is suspect as I have not been to one in a while. Need to start training again. :)

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  26. Man I totally loved the Azharuddin reference. I am a West Indian cricket fan and Indian buffet lover currently living in Canada.

  27. Hi would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re using? I’m going to start my own blog in the near
    future but I’m having a hard time deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something unique.
    P.S Sorry for being off-topic but I had to ask!

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