Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cultural Evolution of An Indian Veg Thali

Thali is probably  a quintessential offering of an Indian kitchen to the world though it may not be as famous as butter chicken, daal and naan in the West. (I heard that these have given bad name to India’s mouth watering array of cuisine). Thali represents how an Indian eats her food. Thali essentially means a plate in which all the offerings are served. Interestingly, the contents keep on changing almost every 100 km across the length and breadth of this huge and diverse country. From the slow cooked heady spice mix of Kashmir to simple rassam/sambar rice in Tamil Nadu and from the fantastic all vegetarian extravaganza of Gujarat  to the carnivore’s paradise in the East, one will be zapped by the diversity. So it is difficult to actually put India’s culinary delights in a nutshell called ‘Indian Thali’

Historically and culturally, Indians are fairly conservative about eating out. However, every new generation is now defying that logic with equal force. The elders generally emphasized on eating at home only and not to eat outside as it was a sign of lowliness. The cast system being very strong in India also raised doubt about the origin of the person who cooked the food. Parann (food cooked by somebody else apart from family members) was a forbidden fruit. The only eating out experience for Indian families were grand functions like weddings and the food was served in a thali. The same culture has percolated down the years in a new version called Thali Restaurants across India.

As I mentioned earlier, it is difficult to put the diverse cuisine of India in a single thali. However, the vegetarian quotient is prominent in Indian thali. Eating a sumptuous thali is one of the indications of celebration related to festivals. Since almost all the festivals are associated with some sacred rituals, people avoid eating non-veg food. Therefore, it was imperative that a thali with 100% veg content will emerge as a clear winner and would set the culture. So it was obvious that Gujarati thali was meant to be a clear front runner.

Gordhan Thaal - Ahmedabad
Down the memory lane, I could clearly remember a very basic version of the so called thali – ‘rice plate’. I am born and brought up in Western Maharashtra and could easily link a wholesome eating experience in the childhood via a rice plate. So a rice plate will have 4-5 small bowls containing one or two gravy based preparations, a dry subzi, lentil, curry/kadhi and salad and couple of chapattis (Indian flat bread) and sumptuous amount of rice (obviously, it’s a rice plate!). You could transform that simple thali into ‘’Deluxe Thali” by replacing chapattis with puris (deep fried Indian puffed bread) and a single serving of an Indian dessert (mostly Gulab Jamun). I loved the part sans rice. I was a rice hater in the childhood and developed nausea to the extent that I used to puke at the site of cooked rice. (This extreme reaction was actually on account of horrible food served in coastal region of Maharashtra/Goa those days – 17-18 yrs ago).

This was the time when the Indian was experiencing the winds of globalization. The new grads (especially engineers with specialization in electronics) were being picked by software companies. People started experiencing the phenomenon of disposable income even after doing savings. Rice plate was meant to take a back seat. Quick Service Restaurants  (QSR) were mushrooming and fast food caught the fancy of Gen X very quickly. Rice plate has been reduced to a meal of labourer these days. But rice plate was never meant to evolve as a choice for thali.

With people finding themselves in a position to spend extra money over food and the inherent Indian culture of eating in thali gave rise to the culture of premium thalis.  In the initial phase, there were many standalone restaurants serving Gujarati/Rajasthani thali (some are doing great even today). As mentioned earlier, the high veg quotient of Gujarati food makes it an indomitable choice for thali anyday. There is 90% chance that you would enter a thali restaurant and you would be served with Gujarati cuisine in your thali. Gujarat and Maharashtra throw abundant choices of veg food to a connoisseur that provides a complete spread from starters to desserts. I don’t think that any other state provides such a wide array of vegetarian cuisine.

Gujarat’s offerings are richer than Maharashtra. Maharashtra’s cuisine is rustic and simple. There are few items in Maharashtra’s offering which can certainly compete with Gujarat (Shrikhand is something which both Maharashrians and Gujaratis claims to be their own dessert, I certainly feel it’s Maharashtrian), but Gujarat’s cuisine scores well in overall index. Although snubbed by fellow North Indians for being too sweet for their palette, I don’t see a strong contender to Gujarat’s veg spread and hence captivating the culinary fancies of foodies across the country. Besides this, Gujaratis being predominantly business oriented community have travelled across length and breadth of the country and have carried the legacy almost everywhere. And there is no doubt that Gujaratis are born foodies.

Let’s get down to main business. Gujarati thali’s main ingredients are farsan (the starters – fried/steamed). Dhokla is generally the preferred steamed version while dal wada is the essential Gujarati snack. The combination of mint-coriander chutney and tamarind-jaggery  chutney along with these snacks makes up for a perfect start. Since the hunger is at peak at the start, most people tend to go overboard gorging on the ‘farsaan’.  This follows by different vegetables, sweet and spicy dal as well as curry and most probably three types breads – phulka with ghee, thepla and rotla. Personally, I am fan of thepla and generally ignore other breads since thepla is rich in taste and contents. Rotla goes good with white butter and jiggery. You actually don’t need anything else if you’ve rotla, white butter and jaggery. In the later course, one may probably have a choice of steamed white rice and aromatic khichdi. Go for khichdi with sweet Gujarati kadhi and you’ll stop hating the sweet quotient of food in Gujarat. Desserts are inseparable- and I love the restaurants who serve unlimited desserts.

Sasuji Thali - Vadodara

Being in Mumbai, I had been to several thalis restaurants in the city and haven’t come across the legend like ‘Agashiye’ of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. In Mumbai, I frequent to Chetana, Status, Samrat, Revival, Thakker’s, Golden Star. Personally, I like ‘Rajdhani Rasovara’ for the sheer size and contents of the thaali. It is not for the faint hearted as it serves  3-4 types of desserts at the start only. I like Chetna for its simplicity, Thakker’s for its rich taste.  In August 2013, I had been to a trip to Ahmedabad with a very close friend, Ashish Sharma only to explore food of Gujarat. The high point, as I mentioned was ‘Agashiye’ though we also tried ‘Gordhan Thaal’ at Satelite Cross Road. Though the starters and desserts were winners (I scooped 7 bowls of Apple Basundi there J), main course was little disappointing. Following is the account of our food trip to Ahmedabad.

To put in a nutshell, Indian thali restaurants do give an essential experience of an Indian cuisine and has evolved into a strong culture in India. I am happy o be the part of this culture and is always a delight to find a thali restaurant in an unknown place (though now-a-days I do a lot of research before heading for an unknown, especially on restaurants and food). I trust that culture will keep on becoming stronger with every bite. J


  1. very nice.. like the step by step pictures most you have come up with i am tried the similar recipe, you have many of good recipes.. do try to visit my place when time permits love to have your feedback dear ..i have followed u glad if u follow me back.. Have a good day.....!

    1. Thanks a lot that you loved my write up. Will surely try to drop in when I am in Delhi. Thanks for the invite

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