My hands-down (hands-in!) favourite feed in India was the Thali. These ‘set meals’ were always the best value and represented an assortment of typical, local food of the area, varying enormously between states and regions. Thali’s were always the most popular choice in cafes and restaurants so you were eating the freshest food, albeit often a mystery as to what would appear on the table in front of you. Thalis are incredible value, in Thokkilangadi, Kerala, we paid the equivalent of 45p for a Fish Thali, with as much as you could eat.
The word ‘Thali’ can be translated directly as the Hindi word for ‘plate’ or ‘tray’, on which the set meal is served. The only choice you generally have is Veg, Fish or Non-Veg, with vegetarian being the most common. As everything is prepared and bubbling away in huge pots in the kitchen, your meal is presented in minutes.
The meal is like a colourful, symmetrical, work of art; sometimes the selection of curries and dahls are ladled into small, round, individual, metal bowls, sometimes piled carefully directly onto a round metal tray or banana leaf, occasionally into pre-formed plastic trays. On the side, pickles, chutneys, sauces, salad, salt, fresh chillies, onion and yoghurt raita are carefully placed. Some Thalis include a desert also, a tidy portion of syrupy Gulab Jamun, sweet semolina rice, ice-cream or sticky Jilabi.
If you’re hungry, the Thali is a delight as once you’ve emptied one small bowl, it is re-filled; in busy restaurants men with narrow metal buckets filled with Sambar, Dahl and Curry fly round the floor ladling out top-ups to every table. Cutlery is not an option, locals expertly mix the components of the Thali together with deft fingers- food unanimously tastes better when eaten by hand.
Variations are endless, in the south rice is a more common accompaniment whereas breads feature more heavily in the north. Thali’s reflect the wide-ranging cuisine of the country, coconut-based down south with fish, and creamy, meaty curries in the north, every time is a surprise and a delight with no tough menu decisions to be made.