Sweet and spice and everything nice

Sweet and spice and everything nice

Thali meals are the best way to check out the flavours of the regional cuisine. You get to taste something of everything on a thali. It works especially well with tourists. You get to know about the region you are visiting only by eating its authentic thali. Thali meals are so popular that even star hotels have included it in their menus.

If you don’t want to experiment much with food while travelling, order a thali. When in doubt order a thali. The Indian thali represents unity in diversity and manifests itself in its infinite variety in every part of the country in different flavours.

An important element in the thali meal is that food must be prepared every day, using fresh ingredients. There is no scope for yesterday’s leftovers. It also represents home-style cooking at its best. The menu on the thali keeps changing according to season. For instance, during summer you have mango-based dishes.

 Traditionally food items in a thali were governed by the six Vedic principles of taste to health — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent.  Playing off one against the other in a meal reduces the craving for any one taste and provides balance and proportion, which in turn aids digestion. Balance is also sought in the physical attributes of foods – liquid and dry, cool and warm, heavy and light. Ideally there is no emphasis on any single food group. So we have a variety – whole grain, pulses, fruits and vegetables, dairy-based items, spices, nuts and fats. The thali exemplified the balanced diet.
Traditionally, thalis were made of brass or copper. It has been almost entirely replaced by stainless steel. The modern thali is a round steel plate with small bowls. A more commercial variation is a steel plate with multiple compartments.  These days you even have disposable, plastic thalis.

In the south, a banana leaf served as a thali. Plates were also made of leaves stitched with slivers of cane. The tradition or serving meals on a banana leaf is still maintained at least during festivals and marriages. A synthetic banana leaf is now used in marriages and some hotels instead of the fresh leaf.

Unlike Western cuisine, which is served in different plates, resulting in a lot of dishwashing, everything is served in one large compact thali. You can eat anyway you like. You can begin with crunchy salad, papad, pickle or rasam or you can even begin with dessert. You can dip your roti in rasam or gravy or chutney.

A lil’ bit of everything
The Gujarati thali is elaborate and on the sweet side, which is typical of Gujarati food where there is use of sugar or jaggery in most dishes. Staple items in a Gujarati thaali includes kadhi (yogurt curry), papads, undiyu (five-vegetable stew cooked in a special pot), moong dal khichdi (rice and lentils), rotis or rotlis of jowar, bajra and maize, methi thepla, and sweets like doodhpaak (thickened milk and rice), and fried and steamed snacks like bhajiyas, kachoris, dhokla and khandvi.

Rajasthani cuisine is primarily vegetarian and its thali has a tempting variety. In Rajasthan, sweet dishes are had before the meal, with the main course and after the meal. Every region in Rajasthan has a popular sweet — Mawa Kachori of Jodhpur, Rasgullas of Bikaner, Ghevar of Jaipur, Malpuas of Pushkar, and so on. Milk, butter milk and butter are used abundantly in cooking. Gram flour is the major ingredient in the making several delicacies such as pakodi and gatte ki sabzi.

A typical Maharashtrian thali includes soorna chi koshimbir (a spicy yam salad), amti (5-lentil gravy), sweet and sour lady’s finger, masala bhaat (spiced rice with vegetables), thalipeeth (chapatis made of jowar, wheat and rice flour mixed with coriander and fenugreek seeds, bengal gram and black gram) fortified with ghee.

A typical Bengali thali has the right proportions of bhaat, luchi (deep-fried flat bread), shukto (a mix of vegetables), dal, fish, meat and chicken.

The South Indian thali is usually served on a banana leaf.  The meal consists of rice, which is eaten with a different dish like sambar, rasam, vegetable curry, chutney, pickle, papad and yogurt.

Curds is a must for to balance the fiery tastes of South Indian meals. Coconut is used liberally used in coastal regions of South India. The South Indian thali varies from region to region.

Fancy a bit of fish?
The thali was popular in joint families in India, with a lot of hands to help, but today the thali has moved out of the house, because of nuclear families, demanding work schedules and few hands to help. However, it has not disappeared. While the thali is still served in homes only during special occasion and when guests are invited home, it has manifested itself in myriad forms in restaurants.

Some restaurants have devised non-vegetarian thali (with two varieties of meat, with and without gravy). They also offer a fish thali, which includes fried fish and curried fish, apart from other accompaniments. 

The North Indian thali served in restaurant is a misnomer in that, the whole of North Indian cannot be represented in a single thali. Besides, some dhabas now have what is known as Punjabi thali. Some restaurants have even branded their thalis as ‘special thali’, ‘mini thali’ and ‘unlimited thali’. Long live the thali!

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