This story first appeared in The Daily Pao
A thali is simply a round plate used to serve food, and has now become synonymous with a whole meal that includes several dishes at a cheaper price. The idea behind this is to offer a balanced meal with sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy tastes and a digestive in a single plate. This is great, because in new places you often want to try a variety of things, which is why, wherever possible, we try to have at least one thali meal. Interestingly, while certain thalis are extremely popular, like the Gujarati, Konkani and Tamilian versions, the concept does not exist in all states across the country. Uttar Pradesh for example does not have a typical thali, though restaurants will serve a ‘North Indian’ thali, as the concept is becoming increasingly popular. In the south, the thali is usually called a ‘meal’. Here are five of our favourite thalis, which we’ve eaten on our journey across the country.
The Massive Odia Thali
The vegetarian Odia thali we ate at Odisha Hotel in Bhubaneswar was massive, with about 12 base dishes and several add-on options. There is a non-vegetarian option as well, but we happened to land up on a Monday, which is the one day of the week they serve only vegetarian dishes. Odia food, especially in the northern part of the state, is somewhat similar to Bengali cuisine. They make heavy use of mustard oil and mustard seeds and a similar blend of five spices or panch phutana used in certain Bengali dishes. Though, according to the owner’s son, a lot of Bengali food borrows from Odia cuisine, and not the other way around. A staple dish is the slightly sweet dalma, lentils cooked with several vegetables but it was our least favourite dish on account of its thick and sticky texture. The base thali consists of dalma, rice (regular or sticky, like the locals eat), five vegetables (potatoes, brinjal, a variant of spinach, pumpkin, fried gourd), pickles, yoghurt, a salad of cucumber and tomato slices, rotis (made of wheat), and a crunchy spicy powder made of ground lentils and dry red chillies that tastes great with plain rice. You can add more vegetables or meats (when available) to your base thali. Since there was no meat that day, we tried a mushroom dish and another brinjal item, both of which came with potatoes. Potatoes seemed to be a fixture and featured in many dishes we tried. Very little oil is used in Odia cooking and the food was filling but not in a manner that would make you comatose.
Where to get it Odisha Hotel, C-18, Market Building, Sahid Nagar, Bhubaneswar, Odisha. Rs140 for the base thali.
The Fishy Kerala Thali
As in much of the south, thalis in Kerala are usually called ‘meals’ and more popularly known as ‘fish meals’. The thali consists of a typical Kerala-style fish curry (or stew) and rice, accompanied by a couple of vegetables (the usual fare of potatoes, cabbage, beans, gourds), sambar (somewhat similar to the way it’s made in Tamil Nadu) and other staples such as pickles, papad and salad (usually cucumber and onion slices). Of course for many Keralites, a beef cutlet or mutton fry is usually ordered along with the fish meal. Most places will also serve pachadi, a dish made with pineapple, yoghurt, coconut, mustard and green chillies, which is sweet and sour with a slight hit of spice.
Where to get it Hotel Thali, near the backwaters, NH183, Kottayam, Kerala. Rs150 for a fish meal.
The Spicy Andhra Thali
Full of curry leaves, tamarind and a variety of chillies, Andhra food can be extremely spicy and an acquired taste. Now, a non-vegetarian thali doesn’t mean you’re given every type of meat. You usually get to pick one or two, from a choice of chicken, mutton or fish. Given the geographical proximity, you tend to get a lot of Andhra cuisine in eastern Karnataka, and while traveling we ate some of the best fare from the region in Mysore. At a place like Hotel RRR, which is typically packed and noisy, service isn’t exactly top priority. The focus is on the food. Most non-vegetarian thalis here come with rice with a generous amount of ghee, an Andhra-style spicy sambar, rasam, pulusu (a sour tamarind gravy), a pumpkin gravy, potatoes garnished with coconut flakes, palak with lentils, an assortment of pickles, and a salad of cucumber, onions and tomato slices. Like in Tamil Nadu, Andhra thalis, like the one at Hotel RRR, sometimes include green chillies that have been marinated in yoghurt, dried and fried. We tried the mutton thali, in which the meat, prepared with curry leaves and chillies and served dry, was quite spicy and had just the right amount of zing.
Where to get it Hotel RRR, Gandhi Square, bear the Mahatma Gandhi Statue, Chamrajpur, Mysuru, Karnataka. Regular veg thali, Rs95; non-veg items at an additional cost.
The Three-Course Tam-Brahm Thali
There are many types of thalis you will get in Tamil Nadu and they can range from the meaty Chettinad thali to a three-to-five course Tamilian Brahmin thali, which is served on special occasions and weddings. Here rice is king, and you will usually get at least three kinds, a flavoured variety like coconut or lemon to start with; plain white rice with sambar or tomato rasam for the second course; followed by yoghurt rice. The meal is accompanied by at least two fried dishes, a vada or a pakoda, one or two dry vegetables (usually cabbage or potatoes), avial (a thick vegetable gravy dish made with lentils and coconut, similar to the stew from Kerala), assorted pickles and papad. In some cases, the first course can be either an idli or adai dosa (a thick dosa made with onion and coriander) though many popular restaurants now also serve rotis or puris. All of it is laid out on a banana leaf, with the fried dishes and condiments on the left and the vegetables on the right side. You typically end your meal will end with a sweet which, because it represents a good omen, is usually served right at the beginning along with buttermilk.
Where to get it New Woodlands Hotel, No.72-75, Dr. Radha Krishnan Road, Mylapore, Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Rs180 for a regular thali.
The Surprising Kathiyawadi Thali
About 10 km outside Bhuj is Bhudia Farms, famous for its organic fruit and award-winning fresh juices. The variety of juices is reason enough to make the trek, even if it is out of your way. Attached to the massive juice shop is a large, typical roadside dining hall that serves a vegetarian Kathiyawadi thali, which, the manager told us, is a little different from a standard Gujarati thali, as it is more spicy than sweet. Sitting among truckers, we ate a full meal of rotis, puris, papad, rice with dahi kadhi (which is fairly typical of the cuisine), white kidney bean gravy, spicy cauliflower and broad beans (the veggies change every day), green chilli pickle, buttermilk, pakodas, and sweet aamras (which they served us even though it was the middle of February). Unlike the more touristy places, they didn’t serve well-known fare such as dhokla and papdi chaat. Overall, the food was light yet filling, non-greasy and delicious.
Where to get it Bhudia Farms, Bhuj-Anjar Highway, near Bhujodi Railway Crossing, Bhuj, Gujarat. Regular thali, Rs100; with papad and pakodas, Rs130; with papad, pakodas and aamras, Rs160.