Thali is bliss, rich flavors on a platter, writes Kunal Vijaykar
It’s the one thing I miss in this lively, bustling, busy world of ours. We stopped eating in thalis at home. It’s either a small stainless steel dish, ceramic dinnerware or, in its most disgusting form, melamine. I yearn for a thali full of shining steel and yearn for half a dozen katoris hemming the edge of the thali, all waiting to be filled with a diversity of dishes. In truth, enjoy the anticipation, more than the variety of dishes.
At the risk of sounding patrician and rocked, I hate having food set before me in bowls that I have to help myself and I miss being served terribly as we did when we were young, sitting at a large 12-seat table at my grandmother’s house, while the cook served us one by one.
To be able to sit at a table, with a large round thali scalloped with katoris and be served unlimited hot dishes, chapatis and rice, is my idea of paradise. I can now find this in so called thali restaurants all over the country.
Most Indian states have their own version of thali, although thali is said to have originated in southern India. A thali is a complete meal, consisting of about 10 or more dishes. A well-balanced thali will always have a grain or millet (rice or chapati or bhakri or puri), lentils (dal, monitor lizard, rasam or sambar), pulses (moong, vaal, masoor, chickpea, matki), two or more vegetables depending on the season, a kind of chutney, based on fruit, raw vegetables, herbs, spices. Curd in a form possibly mixed with some kind of vegetable or fruit like a raita. And pickle. Basically, it is a harmonious meal that includes carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals and fiber.
My two favorite thalis are the Dakshin Kannada Udipi Thali from Karnataka and the Gujarati Thali. These two thalis are vegetarian. At the center of any South Indian thali is rice and is surrounded by dishes meant to be eaten by mixing them with rice. A classic Konkani Karnataka Thali might consist of a range of lightly spiced, simply cooked vegetarian dishes. Like green moong usli – lightly spiced cooked green mung beans topped with coconut. Cabbage or raw banana upkari – finely shredded cabbage or raw banana cooked dry with just a few spices. Kadale kalu usli – chickpeas cooked with spices in a fine sauce. Rasam, lentil pigeon peas or toor dal cooked with a mixture of hot spices. Donuts made from vegetables and fruits.
Although I am such a carnivore and meat lover, Gujarati thali is quite a draw for me. It is one of the most elaborate thalis. It includes several fried snacks, breads, a variety of vegetables, in sauce, sautéed or dried, all cooked in ghee, and a variety of savory and sweet dishes.
Beyond the cuisine itself, it is the spellbinding expectation of being served spicy, sweet, salty, bitter, sour and astringent flavors on a single plate that evokes emotion. The anticipation of eating something fried and steamed, as well as roasted and baked, braised or stewed in one meal is overwhelming. It is the unlimited meal. It’s the idea that this is how any Indian meal should be served. The way it was served by our grandparents and their parents before them. Whether from any region.
Mumbai has its own list of traditional thali favourites, especially in the Kalbadevi, Pydhonie area in south Mumbai. But what I miss is the simple kadhi, daal, two sabzis, chapati, bhakri, khichdi and just one or two farsaan on a thali. Status at Nariman Point and Thackers at Chowpatty somewhat fit the bill. I find that these two thalis have a little modesty and restraint. It’s like eating at a friend’s house. But if you’re looking for flamboyance and indulgence, then it’s Shree Thakker Bhojnalay in the congested and historic Fanas Wadi area. The meal begins with unlimited glasses of buttermilk and a variety of farsaan and entrees. Dhoklas of all colors, bhajiyas made of anything from potato to methi to big green chillies. Chutneys of the sweet, spicy and sour kind. Kachumbar, rotlis and rotlas, bhakris and bhakras, polished puris and puran, all doused in molten ghee. Next, a variety of freshly cooked vegetables and legumes. Doodhi, tendli, chavli, moong to name a few. All served with sweet dal, kadhi, lachko daal rice, pulao khichdi, papad and pickles and with two kinds of sweet dishes.
I discovered another thali joint this week. It’s called Green Gujarat in Lower Parel and offers authentic (sic) Gujarati and Marwari food, some of which I ate for the first time. Like Dakor Na Gota, fried Gujarati pakodas originating from Dakor village in Gujarat. Pakodas made with chickpea flour, methi leaves, sesame seeds, flavored with chilli powder. Dahi Tikhari, bajra-based croutons dipped in a flavored yogurt-based curry. Kathiyawadi Gathiya Nu Shaak, Bhavnagari gathiya cooked in a delicious sauce, typical of Saurashtra region. And what I liked the most, a unique dish of stir-fried bajre ka rotla pieces with a spicy temper, Kathiyawadi Vagharelo Rotlo.
Kunal Vijayakar is a Mumbai-based food writer. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. Her YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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