While the dosa may be our national dish and chicken tikka our most famous edible export, it is the humble thali which is the mainstay Indian meal. Thali, derived from the word thal meaning plate, is a traditional Indian meal, and chances are you eat it, at least in some form, every day.
The customary thali you may be visualizing is a picturesque site – all brightly colored chutneys, pickles, papads, rotis and subjis placed in numerous katoris adorning a shiny steel plate. Appetizing and inviting enough that you feel like digging your fingers into one of the rich curries with a piece of one of the hot rotis. There is more to come, rice is served after you finish your pooris or rotis and topped with buttermilk and often a sweet.Having such variety on the plate during one meal is a rarity these days. Let’s face it — women of the household do not have the time or inclination to make all the regular thali items on a daily basis. When lunches are packed it is usually the roti and subji that make it in the dubbas – the rice and dal are left out. Too much food to pack or too much food to eat during office hours, the only drawback of the thali is that it is difficult to eat away from an actual dining area. Some argue that there is too much food offered in the thali, making you overeat, but why blame the thali – how many of you have had one pizza slice too many? In today’s era of plentiful food, all food intake, a.k.a portions, must be controlled, thali included.

As is the case with most restaurant food, a thali too, eaten at restaurant , will be more calorific. There is more oil, always a dessert and more simply more food. The homemade thali however, is traditional health food with a perfect mix of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals.

Rotis and rice offer carbs, dals and pulses the protein, different vegetables provide vitamins and cochumber(salads) and dahi(curds) also give the needed nutrients for a healthy diet. The foods of the homemade thali may not be displayed as their strikingly attractive as their restaurant counterparts, but they are just as delicious, if not more, and can be found in every corner of India. North, South, East and West all have different varieties of foods in their thalis but the nutritional balance remains the same.

The popular Gujrati thali is known for its creamy kadhi and nutty farsan. Gujarati cuisine is in many ways unique from other culinary traditions of India as it is one of the few cultures where a majority of people are vegetarians despite the large coast line. This vegetarianism stems from religious ideologies and beliefs of the Jainism and Hinduism in the area.

Gujarati cuisine, a blend of exquisite flavours and textures has a wide range traditional recipes from different regions of Gujarat and even each household treasures its time-honored recipes. A Gujarati meal is a great deal more than the ordinary rotli, daal, bhaat ane shaak(roti, dal, rice and vegetables).It also consists of fried savouries(farsan), kandhvi (roll made with besan atta)and a wide variety of sweets. Milk products such as dahi, ghee, and milk based sweets are also prominent. Jaggery is a key ingredient and mixed with certain spices the result it a unique sweet and spicy flavour.

Rohu, hilsa, chingri, boyal – are all seafood wonders that are the specialty of a Bengali thali. As we move East we find the contents of the thali quite opposite of its Gujarati neighbor. Non-vegetarian fare rules this state’s thali with macher(fish) thalis and mangsho(meat curries with chicken or lamb), by far being the most popular among the Bengalis. This is not to say that vegetables are forgotten. Bengali food really does justice to some veggies that people generally avoid. Brinjals and cabbage are delicious in Panch mishali as they are blended perfectly with peas, pumpkin and spices, and even the shunned bottle gourd is appetizing in papaya and bottle guard stew. Rice rules on the plate and but roti lovers can order rotis separately. Let’s not forget the best part – the sweet dish. Rasgulas, sandesh and mishti doi are just a few irresistible treats that accompany this thali.

Moving down South where rice is preferred to roits, sugar is no longer on the ingredient list. While recipes differ in the southern states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala there is one ingredient in common – the red chilli. Spicy fiery curries, rasams, chutneys and pickles are the norm in the thalis of each of these states, all made with a collection of chillies native to the area. Do not fret – there is always cooling curds, buttermilk and salads to balance the spice. Although Andhra is known for its mutton biriyanis, Kerala for its fish dishes and even Tamil Nadu for its meaty Chettinad dishes, the most popular thali in all of these states is vegetarian, Karnataka included.

The Kerala Sadya is very close to a Malyalee’s heart. Served on a banana leaf, the original organic plate, with rice and a myriad of vegetables, some cooked in a ground coconut mixture, both fresh and dried, and some cooked in buttermilk and curds in various flavours. Banana chips, spicy pickles, papadams, and sweet payasams also adorn the leaf. The left side which is always the thinner end of the leaf is always served first with pickles and chips. In other thalis too, the left side is served first with chutneys, pickles, cochumbers and other smaller accompaniments.

Having a thali when you are travelling is an excellent way to get a good sample of the local food. Luckily buttermilk is universal item in the thalis – mainly for its digestive properties. It is served after sweet dishes, and after eating a full thali, you will need that digestive help!

Published in Spice Route Magazine, October 2011

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