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I've noticed that when ordering food at an Indian restaurant here in the U.S., the waiters simply place the different food items on the table. However, when I travel to India and dine at local restaurants there, the waiters always insist on going around the table and placing a little bit of each item into everyone's plate. Especially when we're traveling in a large group where lots of people have ordered different things, I personally find it more convenient for the waiters to simply place the ordered items on the table, than going around and serving a little to everyone.

  • Why do Indian restaurants in India go around tables and serve each food item ordered into everyone's plates, rather than simply put the food items on the table for everyone to take themselves?
  • Is it rude to ask servers in India to simply place food on the table rather than serve individual servings to everyone?
  • If I'm dining at an Indian restaurant in the U.S. and prefer that the food items be served to each person individually, is it considered rude to ask for this?
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First off, I need to state that "always" seems like an exaggeration, I've only seen this at comparatively fancy restaurants that serve shared dishes for large groups. At your average dhaba, meals are served already laid out on thali platters, so there's nothing to serve at the table.

  • In a word, labor in India is cheap: it doesn't cost much to overstaff restaurants. As a representative anecdote, I used to work at an office in Delhi that employed two (2) people to operate one of those "place cup, press button, get instant coffee" machines.
    In the US, by contrast, even minimum wage employees are likely a restaurant's bigger expense and no restaurant will hire two if they can get away with one.

  • As to why, it comes down to hospitality: if you were visiting someone's house, they would likely serve you the choicest pieces etc, so the restaurants are trying to recreate this feeling. There's even a Hindi Sanskrit saying that atithi devo bhav, "guests are God".

  • In India, asking them not to serve you would not be "rude" outright, just a bit weird. It would also break the serving flow a bit, since eg. rice is often kept warm in the kitchen and topped up at regular intervals. I've seen this with simple curries (dhal etc) as well, the staff has large serving buckets but there may not be any self-serve containers to place on the table. "Unlimited thali" places extend this to everything on your plate.

  • In the US, asking them to serve you would be rather presumptuous, but if it's not too busy and you tip well, they'd probably be OK with it. Personally I've had better luck asking "How do you eat this?", with staff usually happy to demonstrate if it's not obvious (pani puri etc), but that's not quite the same as serving everybody.

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