PM Modi (centre L, middle section of table) sits across from US President Barack Obama with Indian and US dignitaries during a private dinner function at the White House in Washington. (Agence France-Presse)
What do you serve a guest who isn't eating?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was served warm water and an empty plate as the guest of honor at a White House dinner Monday night and again at a State Department luncheon Tuesday.
It may seem odd to serve a dinner of crisped halibut with ginger carrot sauce to welcome a man who's in the midst of a nine-day religious fast. People experienced in diplomatic protocol say such a circumstance is indeed rare.
The Prime Minister of India is consuming only water or lemon-water for nine days for the Navratris, a fast he has reportedly kept for more than 35 years. This time coincided with his first visit to Washington as Prime Minister. The State Department's protocol office worked with the Indian Embassy to arrange suitable events and menus.
Attending dinners while fasting isn't a problem, said Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry.
The PM's only request was a glass of warm water, he said, and he insisted that other guests should "please enjoy the feast that has been laid out by gracious hosts."
Ann Stock, who served as President Bill Clinton's social secretary, said even such small, working White House dinners for world leaders are meticulously planned weeks or months ahead of time to ensure the comfort of the guest and host. Dietary issues are just the start.
"You wouldn't put together five flowers in a vase if five is a number that's unlucky in that country," she said.
What about guests chowing down near the PM?
"Whenever I've been in meetings with people who are fasting, I've refrained from food or drink," said Jonah Blank, who served 12 years as South Asia policy director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But that's not an etiquette requirement, he said.
Indeed, members of Mr Modi's delegation ate the meals.
Vice President Joe Biden got the issue out on the table before Tuesday's luncheon of eggplant and sweet potato lasagna prepared by noted Indian-American chef Vikram Sunderam.
"The Prime Minister is fasting and we keep taking him to lunches and dinners," Mr Biden joked. "And we Catholics would say that's an occasion for sin."