There was a time when almost everyone in India ate out of a thali. The word derives from thaal, a large circular tray, and has some connection with thal/sthal which translates to place. This is where food was traditionally 'placed' for consumption. It was a paatra (literally a vessel or container) deriving from the Sanskrit word patra meaning a leaf. The earliest thali was obviously fabricated with leaves. The biodegradable pattal and the banana leaves commonly used as a plate in southern and coastal India remind us of this lineage.
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Times change and so do our eating habits. Indians moved from metallic thalis and adopted plates of porcelain, melamine, plastic and stainless steel. They also stopped sitting cross-legged on the floor or on low stools and eating with their hands. Thali was slowly erased from our memory. For the present generation, it has become synonymous with a specific set meal.
Thali meals are prefixed with geographical indicators or a particular community tag. Gujarati, Jain and South Indian thalis are most common. Gujarati thali is vegetarian so is the Jain one that adheres to even stricter commandments eschewing garlic, onion, roots and tubers that grow underground. The South Indian thali could also be vegetarian and comes in two versions: limited and full meals. Catering to North Indian patrons in Delhi, Udupi restaurants from Karnataka lost no time in introducing a North Indian thali with paneer, chhole, mah di daal and choice of bread: tandoori roti, paratha or kulcha.
In recent years, non-vegetarian south Indian thalis made a strong impression. Karaikudi-Chettinad recipes from Tamil Nadu and delicacies from Syrian Christian or Mopla Muslim repertoire in Kerala have won a small but loyal clientele. Andhra Pradesh took the lead in showcasing its ultra spicy meats and exceptional seafood in its regional thalis. Restaurants like Oh Calcutta and 6 Ballygunge have popularised culinary classics from the East (present day Bangladesh) and West Bengal with tantalising menus that include fish, fowl and lamb.
The array of thalis that we can choose from is bewildering with prices ranging from twenty rupees to a thousand times more.
Roadside kiosks and pushcarts sell a set thali with two parathas, dahi and achar or three puris and sabzi for 20-30 rupees. Add a fiver and you could have a more substantial meal of four rotis, half a plate of chawal, two vegetables and dal. In between, there are other options, kadhi chawal, rajma chawal, chhole kulche, veg paneer biryani. At the other extreme are premium eateries that offer a unique fine dining experience to their guests which include foreign tourists and expats. The Taj group was the first to introduce de lux thalis in their speciality Indian restaurants a few decades back. There has been no looking back since.
From time to time, a curated thali strives to take on the degustation of classy European eateries. The prices at approximate ₹ 7500 or more excluding wines can be deterring even for the well-heeled. If you like to tipple as you nibble, the bill may soar up to ₹15,000 without gratuities. There are aesthetic compensations, however. The dishes you eat are served on silverware or bell metal with gold-plated cutlery. Some of the dishes, in curated thalis, are rarely encountered in the public domain. At the Marwar-Mewar-Malwa fest at the Oberoi Delhi last week, Kr. Hemendra Singhji of Bhaisoragarh unveiled Hari Mirch ka Maans, Safed Kathhal, Shikar ke Alu and Malwa Gosht the rustic robust ancestor of the much-hyped Lal Maans.
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Some time back, Zee Zest, formerly Living Foodz, launched a travel-cum-food show titled Thalis of India hosted by celebrity chef Kunal Kapur. The programme explored different regions of India to rediscover forgotten thalis (vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian), each with a distinct identity and allure of its own. From Trami in the valley of Kashmir to Bohri thaal in Gujarat and the sadya spread on a banana leaf, it was a veritable mouth-watering feast for the eyes.
The greatest joy of eating a thali meal is that it allows the diner to compose his own symphony of tastes and take delight in arranging the course-wise sequence as per preference, like bespoke tailoring. The katoris (small bowls) represent a wide chromatic spectrum that most of the time gives a clue to their taste and pungency of spices. Some items are hot while others are at room temperature or even cold.
Ratika and Richa Khetan are two enterprising Marwari sisters from Jaipur who have come up with the fascinating idea of shrinking the thali into a pocket-friendly platter that reminds one of the table d'hote fixed price meals. Their venture, The Cauldron Sisters, created some little known thalis: the Parsi thali and Banarasi thali. The platters priced between ₹250-500 come to the table in a handcrafted basket adorned with a piece of handwoven fabric with the edibles in clay pots.
The thali continues to evolve. Is this trend going to have an impact on the preparation and presentation of Indian foods or is there a twist in the tale awaiting us remains to be seen.
Written by Delhi-based food historian Pushpesh Pant. The story has been lightly edited for style.
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