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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Food at the cultural divide – the burrito and the salad sandwich

There is a very poignant scene in Mira Nair’s cinematic adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake. Having recently arrived in the United States, Ashima Ganguli, finds Rice Krispies in the cupboard and proceeds to eat it as she would the Bengali snack, jhalmuri. Watching the film again, the scene reminded me of a moment of culinary awkwardness I faced years ago when I arrived in the United States for higher studies.

I will never forget my first encounter with the burrito. For those unfamiliar with Mexican cuisine (or American variants), a burrito consists of a flour tortilla wrapped around fillings consisting of rice, beans, and meat and vegetables. To elaborate further, the flour tortilla is the closest relative of the desi roti you will come across easily everywhere in North America. I had no problem eating either the tortilla or the fillings. In fact, I quite relished it. My issue was with the packaging. In India, I had grown up eating rotis alongside rice, but the concept of filling a roti with rice was very alien to me. For the longest time, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the whole idea!

If you’re from India and you’ve never come across rice packaged inside a roti, how would you feel about eating a burrito?

I am sure North American readers will wonder what the big deal is here. Well, let me pose a similar scenario. Would you eat a sandwich that didn’t have a patty, but instead had a salad inside? I am not talking about a tuna salad or a chicken salad, but a house salad. Sure you might be able to get one easily if you wanted to, but if you’re not vegetarian the thought might seem offbeat to you.

Then, it will surprise you that the most American of all establishments, McDonald’s, sells a sandwich in India with primarily lettuce, tomato, onion, and salad dressing. Called the Salad Sandwich, this entree item sells  where a large chunk of the population is vegetarian and has no problem eating a salad inside a sandwich bun.

How would a culinary creation like the Salad Sandwich do in the land of the Big Mac?

Hmmm… now there’s a thought!

Footnote: Now if you really want to taste a mainstream dish that boggles the senses, I’d recommend fried ice cream.

Burrito image:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetonveg/ / CC BY 2.0

Salad Sandwich Image © McDonald’s India. Fair-use rationale: not-for-profit commentary of product using a very low-resolution image.