‘Big-Fat’ is often the adjective used to describe an Indian wedding. Along with all the decorations, pomp and show, gold, music, dance, and rituals, a big highlight of the wedding festivities is the food. Food is a major part of the rich Indian culture, and one can witness a huge display of it at a typical Indian wedding. Mostly, Indian wedding feasts are a vegetarian affair, but non-vegetarian food is often served during the reception party. It all depends on the bride and groom's preferences and specific religions and choices.
For the uninitiated, as a non-Indian guest at an Indian wedding in the US, the ceremonial spread could be quite overwhelming, but don't worry, it's the good kind of overwhelming. The munching begins much before the actual meal is served as batches of juices, mocktails, and sometimes cocktails, starters, and snacks are continuously circulated for the guests to enjoy as they marvel at the ongoing array of rituals and customary practices. While every aspect of the wedding has meaningful inferences deep-rooted in the country's traditions and is worth exploring, we will be focusing solely on the culinary side.
Let’s explore the food varieties that can be typically found at an Indian wedding in the US.
1. Beverages: The guests are often greeted with a welcome drink such as nimbu pani (lemonade), lassi (sweetened buttermilk), coconut water, fruit juices, or mocktails. Another popular drink is aam panna, which is a raw mango juice topped with fresh basil and mint leaves. It makes for a refreshing drink. Another fun and refreshing summer treat is ice gola, which is a shaved ice treat often served in shot glasses at weddings. During winters there might be counters serving masala chai or coffee to beat the cold.
2. Soups: Soups are a must at Indian weddings, be it in India or the US. ‘Shorba’ is a term used synonymously with soup in India. There will be different options in this category, spinach shorba, tomato shorba, and mutton shorba, being the popular ones. Other options are rasam and mulligatawny, which are peppery, tangy delicacies served piping hot. Often, hosts are aware and keep the spice toned down for all guests, but assume there may be some heat in the dishes.
3. Chaat: Chaat is a group of South Asian savory delights typically enjoyed as snacks. Imagine it as appetizers or tapas to understand the dishes place in the menu. The most popular street food of the region has also attained a special significance at their weddings. The most loved chaat item is pani puri. These are deep-fried, hollow flour balls filled with spicy and tangy liquids. These are eaten in a single bite to witness an explosion of flavors in the mouth. It is a must-try item and it's like, the feeling of when you first tried Pop Rocks when you first have one. Other popular chaat variants at weddings are sev puri, aloo chaat, dahi puri, and the list goes on.
4. Salads: There is usually a dedicated salad counter, with a lot of cut vegetables like cucumber, carrots, tomatoes, etc. These are eaten along with the meal. Popular Indian salads are kachumber (spicy cucumber salad), sprouted mung bean salad, and chickpea salad. All these can be enjoyed as is or as an accompaniment to the main course meal. Don't worry about how you eat it, you can add it in a scoop of your rice, or eat it alone, anything goes.
5. Breakfast/Snacks: If the function is held during breakfast or snack time, the guests are in for a real treat. Popular breakfast and snack items served at weddings are South Indian dosa, idli, vada, upma, uttapam, and more. These are paired with different types of savory chutneys and sambar. North Indian delicacies are poori served with potato curry, stuffed paratha with pickle or yogurt, chole bhature, kachori, pakoras, samosa, poha, and more. Just understand, it's a breakfast that competes with any dinner plate, so it will not be your usual continental breakfast.
6. Starters: Starters usually comprise chicken, paneer, and vegetable preparations, popular items being chicken and vegetarian kebabs, tikka, rolls, and cutlets. Most of these are marinated in a blend of spices before grilling, pan-frying, deep-frying, or cooking on an open fire. These might take the place of the bread basket at an Indian wedding. These breads and kebabs are usually awesome when freshest and hottest.
7. Breads: Indian cuisine consists of a variety of different styles of bread. Roti, chapati, paratha, and kulcha are North Indian breads made of wheat or refined flour that are cooked on a pan, are topped with butter, and enjoyed with different curries. Poori and bhatura are deep-fried varieties that lend a more indulgent and rich experience. Naan and tandoori roti, the more popular varieties in the West are cooked in a special oven called tandoor. Appam, pathiri, and bhakri are breads from the Western and Southern regions of India. These are made of rice and make the perfect accompaniments to curries and sabzi. You dip these in curries, eat them alone, put butter on them, it is anything you'd like it to be. And even more fun? You can eat these with your hands, skipping the fork, and no one will blink.
8. Curries: The highlight of Indian cuisine is the different varieties of curries made with chicken, mutton, paneer, vegetables, mushroom, legumes, and more. Spice lovers will love rajma, chole, dum aloo, dal makhani, chicken stew, vindaloo, rogan josh, palak paneer, and the all-time favorite butter chicken. For those looking for low to no spice varieties, cream-based dishes such as malai paneer, methi matar malai, and malai chicken are on the sweeter side. Don't assume each curry will be spicy, it really depends on the curry. The same way any pasta sauce can be flavored a variety of ways, so is curry.
9. Rice: The most common rice varieties seen at weddings are plain rice, jeera rice (rice tempered with cumin seeds), pulao, and the popular biryani. While pulao and biryani can be enjoyed as is or paired with an accompaniment of raita and pickle, plain rice and jeera rice make the perfect pairings for the variety of gravies, daal, and sambar, even curries.
10. Accompaniments: Indian pickles usually made of mango, lemon, garlic, chili, etc. are spice bombs that can spruce up any meal in an instant. There are also pickles that are sweet and sour. These pickles along with a range of chutneys, papad, and raita make excellent accompaniments to the meal. The cleanse the palette and add bursts of unique flavors throughout the meal.
11. Desserts: The perfect way to end a great meal would be with great desserts and an Indian wedding dessert counter will not disappoint. From the syrupy gulab jamun to the indulgent rabdi jalebi, the aromatic gajar halwa to the creamy ras malai, the decadent basundi to the rich kheer, the wedding guests will be left spoilt for choices. These can often have dairy, but not all do, and they are sweet, so give them a go.
Many good memories in life often revolve around food and people. Attending an Indian wedding and savoring the large culinary spread in the midst of all the love, warmth, family, hospitality, and culture could turn out to be one such memorable experience in life that can be cherished forever.