The French have table d'hôte and we Indians have our Thali. But not quite, really. The Indian Thali is way more evolved than a European set meal, which is essentially a fixed-price set meal or 'prix fixe' menu with a choice of starters, mains and desserts. There is nothing limited about a Thali. It offers no options either. A Thali is all about spread and variety. Economically speaking, it is also about value for money. The last is not a surprise, as the commercially modern Indian Thali is undoubtedly a Gujarati invention. I can already hear readers protesting, all other communities and regions have their own versions of Thalis too. But as I shall argue through this piece, Gujaratis have taken the Thali to a classical art form elevating it from the utilitarian versions found in other culinary cultures.
Food anthropologists may trace the roots of the Thali to Krishna's Chappan (56) Bhog given the fondness of the Gujaratis for the flautist God with a dark complexion. The Gujarati Thali is not just an ensemble of taste and flavours, it is also a riot of colours and a visual delight. What distinguished the Gujarati Thali further is its attention to food texture not seen as much in other food traditions.
I tease my friend Vipulbhai, who insists on taking me for a "lavish" (pronounced as "levish") thali meals when I am in Gujarat, the variation in form comes for their 'passion' (pronounced as 'pesan') for Besan (gram flour). True that a Gujarati meal has to start with farsans and a generous dose of gram flour would also go into the making of other dishes like Khandvi and Kadhi. But it is not Besan alone that lends variations in texture. A Gujarati Thali is a mix of the coarse, grainy, granular, smooth, dry and wet dishes on the same platter.
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The breads served with a thali –- millet rotlas, bakhris, puris and theplas -- all add to the range of texture. So do other items like Patra, Khaman, Handvo. In between are the vegetables, pulses, dal and salad. Finally, before the desserts, comes the rice, both plain and Khichu or khichadi. It is said that "the Gujarati thali has more colours than a rainbow" -- the yellow of turmeric, the whiteness of dairy products, the redness of tomatoes, the green of leafy vegetables, the brown of pulses, and the colours of various spices, relishes and salad vegetables, seamlessly blends into single Thali.
It is a misconception that Gujarati food is by definition sweet. Certainly, the per-capita consumption of sugar and gur (jaggery) is relatively high when compared with other states but the Gujarati diet is not just an indulgence of glucose and fructose. It does vary between regions. The Kathiwadis eat more spices and so love to spike their food with pickles. The Surtis like it milder. They also use more vegetables, like in Undhiyo, than the arid western Gujarat. But starting with the savoury and finishing with the most sinful basundi, shrikhand, gulab jamun and aamras one traverses the entire spice route.
Only the Maharashtrian and Rajasthani Thalis come anywhere close to the Gujarati Thali. What sets the Gujarati Thali apart is the holistic conception. It arises from the fact that Gujaratis are predominantly vegetarians and, therefore, the design of the meals had to be more balanced.
Whereas other Thalis are more a collection of eat-all-at-once popular entrées.
Take Marwari food for instance. Traditionally, Rajasthan being a desert region, the shortage of water and fresh greens increased the reliance on dry vegetables and berries like Ker-Sangri, the ubiquitous besan gatta, and loads of chillies and pickles. The Dal Baati Churma, Lehsun (Garlic) ka Chutney, and buttermilk to soothe the stomach linings is what life in a dry and hot climate demands. However, what one gets in a typical Marwari Bhojnalaya is a mix-and-match combination.
Rajput cuisine -- that includes meat -- is another genre altogether. Though now one gets abominations like Bati with Keema (minced meat) instead of Daal as innovation. Maharashtrian Thali is also a creation of convenience. It is not part of the regular diet of Maharashtrians who generally lead a spartan lifestyle and have simple meals. Thalis are enjoyed on special occasions and family outings to restaurants. Shreyas Hotel on Apte Road in Deccan Gymkhana, Pune offers a vegetarian Thali to die for.
That brings us to Madrasi Meals. My first encounter with it was on a solo trip from Madurai to Kanyakumari. Changing buses midway at Tirunelveli, I was confronted with a "Meals Ready" restaurant. The board inside offered two options –- Meals and the other "Special Meals". Upon enquiry, I was told an ordinary meal meant limited rice whereas in special meals unlimited, I could tuck into all-you-can-eat rice.
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Looking around, I could not finish in several sittings the amount of rice people ate. So, a meal it was for me -- which came with sambar, poriyal (sauteed vegetables), kuzhambu (a tangy curry), pickle, curd, appalam, rasam and mor (buttermilk) on the side. Now, of course, fancy South Indian restaurants offer "Special Meals" with side dishes like Paniyaram (mini fried idlis), more than one kind of rice, kurma and two or more varieties of vegetable items thrown in. But those are embellishments that purists would not care for much.
In contrast, a Kerala sadya is more like a Thali. A typical Onam sadya can have as many as twenty-seven or more dishes in a spread. But a sadya is not served like a Thali or even a buffet. It comes in sequence.
The Punjabis do not have a concept of a Thali. What passes as North Indian Thali is closer to a 'set-meal'. In the East -- people traditionally ate in courses. Now, Bengali, Odia and Assamese restaurants present something in the name of a Thali, which are actually tasting menus.
Alas, the old Railway Thalis are gone. But, now some Indian Chinese Restaurants, I am told, are serving something akin to a Thali. After all, by a stretch, a Japanese Bento Box is also a form of a Thali.