Visiting India is an incredible experience on many levels – including the cuisine! One of the predominant traditional items you will find on menus throughout India, particularly in Southern parts, is the thali (pronounced ta-lee). As this dish can be vegetarian or non-vegetarian and usually has a set menu, it can be an ideal starting point when learning the ropes in India.
A thali is not only scrumptious, but also nutritiously filling … although a little puzzling upon first encounter if you haven’t read a ‘how to’ guide or don’t have a knowledgeable travel buddy to shed some light. Fortunately, I can happily fill the gaps on both counts!
How is a thali served?
A thali is unique in presentation. A Hindi word literally meaning ‘large plate’, a thali is a smorgasboard generally served on a circular platter or large banana leaf. Lining the outside of the plate, you will find an array of dishes in small bowls; usually consisting of vegetables, curries (dahl is a common dinner winner!), salads (often containing coconut flesh), curd or yoghurt, chutney (one of my personal faves!), and pickles. In the centre will be a healthy serving of rice, accompanied by a bread (like a roti, pappadum or chipati) and perhaps a savoury or deep-fried snack.
Order for optimum digestion
Regarding order of consumption – well, it essentially boils down to personal preference and slight variations you might encounter among thalis. However, a general order for optimal digestion:
- Vegetables first – both chilli curries and dry (with breads and rice)
- Salad – cleans the palate and aids digestion by making you less likely to drink water
- Pickles – enhances flavour and digestion
- Yoghurt – poured over the top of a curry or eaten last to cool your mouth (Indians often love spice!)
- Sweets last – of course, you must eat your veggies before the sweet treat!
Of course, good digestion also relies on slow, steady consumption. Take time to savour the array of flavours that the Ayurvedic world may consider a six-taste sensation; culminating sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent.
Now for the fun bit – how to eat it. Cutlery is optional, but try eating it the traditional way – with your hand! Be sure to wash your hands first, and use your right hand only to eat. As the left hand is predominantly used for toileting and other unsanitary activities, it may be acceptable to pour curry over rice or grab a cup using your left hand – but certainly not to eat (or shake hands!) with.
Select a small portion of rice and tip curries and condiments over it. Mix with your fingers, getting a decent distribution, and form little balls onto your fingertips using your thumb to press the food together and the remaining four fingertips like a spoon – and go for it! It takes practice, but enjoy the process. Eating with my hands brings out my inner-child!
Aside from being heavenly scrumptious, the thali is also a satisfying bang for your buck (or rupee!). They are generally very reasonably priced, and even better – the rice and accompanying goods are constantly replenished throughout meal, so you can eat until your buttons pop (but perhaps go easy if an asana practice is scheduled to follow your feeding frenzy!). You will often find that Indian waiters are very generous and love watching westerners enjoy their authentic food, so don’t forget to signal when you have had enough.
You may also be offered ghee (clarified butter) to put on top of your rice. You may have your reservations, but ghee is considered to have significant immunity-building medicinal properties when consumed in the right portions.
Eat your way around Southern India with me on retreat from 8th – 22nd January 2018. Click here for details!