It’s all in the thali
The easiest gateway to a community's food habits, the thali is a reflection of culture, lifestyle, geography and economy
In a recent weekend, a motley group of people—a Punjabi, a Sindhi, a Kashmiri Pandit, a Himachali, a Marwari, a UP-ite and a Bengali, living in the National Capital Region—came together to partake of a Bihari thali at The Potbelly Rooftop Cafe, a restaurant in South Delhi’s Shahpur Jat village that specializes in traditional Bihari food. The thali included sattu puri, litti-chokha, ol ki chutney, sitaphal ki sabzi and chicken ishtoo. The meal was part of Thali Tradition, an initiative by the Delhi Secret Supper Club (DSSC) to familiarize people of the city with seven different cuisines. Also part of the three-day event were the Andhra, Parsi, coastal, Bengali, north-eastern and Kashmiri thalis.
“The original dal makhni recipe doesn’t have cream. It was added to make the hearty dish from Punjab restaurant-worthy," declared one guest, taking a bite from his khare masale ka mutton, one of the best mutton dishes the Capital has to offer. The mutton was impeccably spiced, with warm notes of cinnamon singing through the dish and caramelized onions adding a hint of sweetness. It was devoid of tomato, had just enough garam masala to make it fragrant, and the mustard oil stuck to the fingers but didn’t float over the dish, making it different from the one-dimensional meat dishes found in most restaurants across Delhi-NCR.
“Kashmiri Pandits use only mustard oil to cook food," said another diner. Food had brought this group to this table and they were happy to share nuances of the things they grew up eating.
“The thali is a longstanding food tradition across cultures and communities in India," says Shreya Soni, founder of the DSSC. “We spoke with the restaurants and chefs about different formats, but it is the thali we all agreed upon. There is a balance of flavours and textures, and it is a good way to understand the region’s food preferences."
Not only is the thali the gateway to a community’s food habits, it also gives an understanding of their socio-cultural makeup, lifestyle, economic activities and geographical indicators. The Chettinad thali, for example, is known for robust spices that lend the food complex flavours. If you look back at the history of the Chettiars, the community was one of the biggest traders of spice in South-East Asia. The Naga thali, on the other hand, has a cleaner flavour profile and despite the use of the Naga mirchi, has a fairly spartan approach to other spices.
A thali, essentially, is a plate of food in which a number of dishes (it can vary from five to 20 items, sometimes even more) are served in small portions alongside bread (which can be made from various grains) or rice. There are different textures in play and the flavours range from sweet, salty, sour to bitter, pungent and astringent. The first mention of donas—or small bowls—can be found in texts from the Vedic period and the portions in a thali depends upon the composition of the food and its impact on vata, pitta and kapha—the three energies inside a human body—according to Ayurveda.
“What I have learnt from my experience of travelling across India and learning about food is that in most communities, the traditional, elaborate thali is served for three reasons: the arrival of an important guest, ceremonies, or due to different customary beliefs," says chef Kunal Kapur, who sampled different thalis across the country for his food show Utsav: Thalis Of India last year. “People in the Mishing community of Assam, for example, believe that a puja, followed by eating different dishes from a thali over two days, can ward off a spate of misfortunes."
The Pathare Prabhu community in Maharashtra serves a thali on festivals and when the son-in-law of the family comes visiting, says Kapur, just like the Bengalis, who follow a similar tradition during Jamai Sashti.
“The number of sweets in a Baniya thali of Delhi reflects the prosperity of the family," he says.
The sadya thali of Kerala, which is served during Onam and weddings, and the Parsi thali, which is now served only at weddings, are two example of ceremonial thalis. But while the sadya is a holistic vegetarian thali, the Parsi thali is a more indulgent feast. And while both are served on banana leaves, the sadya is traditionally eaten sitting on the floor using hands and the Parsis eat their food on a table using cutlery.
In certain communities like the Bohris, the thali takes the centre stage at social gatherings. The Bohri thaal is so big that around eight people can gather around a plate, sharing food and stories while celebrating some occasion.
There is also a certain geographical context to the thalis. In certain cultures, there is a fixed direction to approach the food on a thali, like from left to right. Bengalis will always start with shukto—a mixed vegetable preparation with bitter gourd—and proceed in a certain sequence that ends with a sweet dish. The bitterness of the shukto is believed to open the palate for the other flavours and start the digestion process. In a Gujarati thali though, people will start with the sweet element.
But the common thread uniting all the thalis is the seasonality of produce, local flavours, balance of ingredients, portions and nutrition. Acknowledging the nutritional benefits of a thali, a recent report published in the Yale Journal Of Biology And Medicine, says, due to its diversity of ingredients, it may help lower chronic disease risk through its gut health benefits and may “potentially prevent or reverse chronic disease, such as colon cancer or type 2 diabetes". The report also says, “The thali diet promotes gut bacterial diversity by delivering probiotics, prebiotics, and different classes of phytochemicals from fermented foods, dal and vegetables and spices, respectively."
The thali clearly has come a long way from being served in homes to making an appearance at food festivals in five-star hotels. Some cuisines are so popular that their thalis have become permanent fixtures on menus within the fine-dining format. “However, with growing commercialization, the meaning of a thali today has somehow become diluted to a plate of unlimited food at a nominal cost at a quick-service place. Basically it’s a truncated buffet in a plate," says Kapur.
The biggest problem with the thali is the time required to create several courses for a daily meal. A calorie-conscious generation prefers to avoid rich food cooked in fats like ghee. As a result, a lot of traditional dishes that were fixtures on a thali are on the verge of extinction or are already long forgotten.
Journalist and food historian Pritha Sen is a staunch believer in modernizing traditional foods. “Feeding guests and stuffing them was a way for us to show our love," says Sen, who is a consultant chef at Mustard, a restaurant in Mumbai and Goa. “But times have changed. People don’t eat that much anymore. And it leads to wastage."
When they were working on the menu for Mustard, Sen recalls that she saw the similarities between French and Bengali cuisine. “I loved the simplicity and colours in French food. I also loved their portions which were just enough," recalls Sen.
So in the Bengali thali that Mustard serves, there is a small portion of rice garnished with mustard microgreens, sauteed leafy vegetables of the day, a dal, a fish or meat dish and a chutney. Everything is in small portions and balanced in its variety of colours.
“We have to evolve with the times and adapt. So it is encouraging to see people doing modern takes on traditional thalis," says Kapur.
At the lunch table in Potbelly, the conversation veered from food to politics, cinema and makhana kheer—the dessert of the day. The guests were happy that the dish was cooked traditionally, over a low flame, so that milk stuck to the pan and the sticky layer, called the khurchan, was scraped and mixed into the dish, giving it a rich mouth feel and smokiness. As Kapur says, “Adapting to the times is important for a traditional recipe to survive. But certain classics should be left untouched."s