Bohra Cuisine and Dining Etiquette

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Chilamchi Lota (hand-washing utensil)

Chilamchi Lota (hand-washing utensil)

The Bohras live by the saying, "Many hands are a blessing" and for dining this is an encouragement to eat in company. The traditional Bohra way of eating together is around a steel thaal the standard size of which is designed to accommodate a family or any group of 8 or 9 people during a communal dinner.

Bohra etiquette for meals requires that heads be covered and hands washed both before and after the meal. Thus, in a communal dinner or when guests are invited home, once everyone is seated, it is common for a serving member to go around with a chelamchi lota (basin and jug) and wash the guests' hands.

The thaal is elevated with a tarakti (stand) which is placed in the middle of a square piece of cloth called a safra, laid out on the floor. Out of respect for the bounty of food, a laden thaal should not be left unattended; it is not placed until at least one person is seated for the meal. During a community meal, the thaal is not placed until all eight diners are present, because the portions served are intended to suffice that number. Bohras have a no-wastage policy so not a single morsel should be left on the thaal when it is taken away.

Food is eaten using all five fingers, preferably of the right hand.

Each dish is placed in the centre of the thaal from where each member will take his or her share. The meal begins with a pinch of salt and after each diner has tasted it the first course is served.

Interestingly, the first course is usually a dessert. In the Bohra dialect of Lisan-ul D`awat, desserts are called mithaas (sweets) and the savoury dishes kharaas. The first sweet dish can be either a traditional Indian sweetmeat or something modern like ice cream, unless it's a celebration, when the sodannu (a tiny serving of cooked rice with ghee and sugar) takes first place.

A savoury starter follows, accompanied by some form of bread before giving way to the main course. It used to be the case that at a Bohra feast, 2 or more courses of kharaas and mithaas were served alternately, but now - to promote healthy eating minimize waste - Bohras have been counselled to keep the number of sweet and savoury courses down and for public events there is to be no more than 1 each.

Taking a pinch of salt to start the meal

Taking a pinch of salt to start the meal

After the sweet and the savoury dish comes the main course; invariably a rice dish such as the signature Bohra meat biryani, kaari chaawal (meat broth with rice) or daal-chaawal or daal-chawaal palidu (lentil rice with soup with or without meat).

The Bohras have a wide variety of both vegetarian or non-vegetarian rice mixes for their main course.

Separate servings of soups and salads might well be served from the outset of the meal. When it's time for the jaman to end, it is also time to bring in the denouement of fruit or dry fruits.

Finally the family or dining members taste the salt again. The Prophet MohammedSA has said that this tasting of salt before and after meals prevents 72 major diseases.

At a festive communal meal the diners will likely finish with a mouth freshening paan (a betel leaf with various flavourings folded inside).