Long before international cuisine lay claim and ownership, the Indian thali has always been the original chefs tasting. Shreya Soni presents a case for the ‘apparently-humble but wildly-satisfying’ thali
The first distinct food memory I have is of eating a thali. In Hyderabad, with Dad, at Abhiruchi Restaurant, third table to the left of the entrance. The thrill of building a hillock of podi (gunpowder), poking a hole with an index finger, pouring hot ghee into it and mix it with annam (steamed white rice), tomato pappu (traditional Andhra dal with tomato) and eating it with the much treasured and hugely fought over appalam (fried papad). Irrespective of how busy Pop was (continues to be), the tradition of a weekly thali continued.
With the move, the tradition moved to the Canteen at Andhra Bhavan. Relocating to Delhi allowed us to experiment with different regional cuisines, all perfectly presented in a thali. “Go from left to right!” or “Eat with your hands, it’s bliss!” or “Beta, pasta will come and go, thali is eternal!” were dining-advice stated at the dinner table. In fact, my family continues to paroso (serve) Indian food in gleaming stainless steel thalis.
Long before international cuisine lay claim and ownership, the Indian thali has always been the original chefs tasting. Every restaurant worth their salt is imbibing the use of local and seasonal, something executed in a thali since decades. One that displays a wealth of indigenous cooking techniques — fermenting, pickling, smoking, steaming, grilling, deep frying, bhuno, boiling, guthna/ghotna, the list is endless.
Centuries before international chefs added a palate cleanser to their tasting menus, this featured on every Indian thali. While it is commonly understood that the objective is eponymous, a palate cleanser on a thali is scientific. It does aid understanding flavours in a cleaner format, but it is presented to negate the need to drink water. Drinking water with a meal goes against ayurvedic principles of digestion and gut-health.
As unique as our childhoods are, we share some universal truths. As a child, your mind is like wet cement and your preferences are borrowed from your parents. As a teenager, those preferences start deviating and the experimentation tries scratching that cement. But when the parental-laid cement is stronger than the likes of Ambuja and Ultratech, you eventually seek culinary comfort in exactly where the discovery all began — the roots, the nostalgia, the familiarity. The only bite of food that warrants a sigh analogous to the touch and feel of Nani’s old mulmul sari, the lingering whiffs of aftershave as Pop leaves for office, the security of your old hole-ridden sleeping shirt.
I moved to England to study and start a career in management consulting, and no week was sans Indian food. No, lord no, nothing from the strangely popular curry houses. But a Masala Zone Dosa here and a Chor Bizarre Tarami there ensured the greyest of English skies seem blue. Whilst I credit my curious palate for widening my third eye (read, tummy tyre), it is the thali that truly taught me the principles of life.
Life Lesson #1
Balance is everything
American writer, Thomas Merton states that happiness is not a matter of intensity, but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony. It is incredible how aptly interchangeable ‘happiness’ is with ‘thali’ in this quote. The quintessentially Indian thali is the perfectly balanced meal with a rhythmic symbiosis of six flavours — sweet, sour, spice, salt, bitter and astringent. The thali is a harmony of science and art, a scientific representation of a composite culture and a balance of flavours and textures. Like life, the thali is neither too little nor too much. It’s just right, whether you know it or not.
Life Lesson #2
Consume with compassion
It’s getting increasingly hard to ignore our injured planet and there is no urgent time to state that we need to place the planet at the very heart and core of our consumption patterns. Traditionally, thalis endorse portion control, zero-wastage and if served on a banana leaf (my absolute favourite), the leaf is then rinsed and fed to cows to close the loop of sustainable consumption. The composition of food is aligned with the three internal energies as stated in Ayurveda — vatta, pitta and kapha. The thali employs ayurvedic principles to preserve the inherent goodness of seasonal and local ingredients. There is balance, unity and nourishment where each dish finds the sweet spot between science, technique and compassion.
Life lesson #3:
Be in the present
Like life, a thali pulls you in, activates and engages all the senses. I am yet to meet someone who isn’t visibly moved by the visual richness of a thali, or witness more focussed silence when navigating through the different dishes. Invariably the silence is punctuated with people swapping recipes or narrating the traditions of the cuisine. Of how their Kashmiri grandmother always cooks with mustard oil or the traditional way of cooking Makhane Ki Kheer is over a low flame and then gently scrape the khurchan (sticky layer of milk at the bottom of the pan) into this foxnut-based dessert. This rediscovery of legacy and technique tugs at every sense and fibre of attention. As poor as the analogy may be, if there were a meal to match a mammoth KJo production, it would be a thali. Albeit, with substance.
My company, DSSC (Delhi Secret Supper Club), curates and produces dining experiences across the country. We’ve been blessed to work with talented chefs, multiple homegrown brands and some of the globe’s most iconic brands. Every week, our steadfast and skilled team of accountants look puzzled with the invoice-commentary submitted to them. Between raising invoices for Peruvian food festivals to understanding the ROI (return on investment) on influencer marketing bills, an innocuous question was asked about why we never host a thali supper.
Before we applaud their marketing ingenuity (and scepticism towards influencers), please know that this was quietly prompted by Father Dear. The eternal thali lover, the man who has managed to convince poor Mother into finding a thali joint on every local and international holiday. Whether in Pune or Paris or Iceland, the man finds a way to be united with his thali, his happy food.
Suckers for all things local and seasonal, we started studying regional Indian cuisine — the history, the options, the techniques, the cultural context, the business. The excitement that ensued resulted in launching the world’s first curated celebration of the iconic Indian thali, aptly named The Thali Tradition. The complex matrix of the Indian thali transcends beyond satisfying the appetite, it’s a full blown celebration of authenticity, diversity and cultural exploration. After two successful editions, we learnt two things about India’s diners and wealth.
1. The diner seeks familiarity even within experimentation
There’s a lot stated about the fickle diner community today, whether it’s their damaging attraction towards deep-discounts. But then again, who wouldn’t be in a market bursting at the seams with limitless options of restaurants, dishes on the menu (ugh, pet peeve), Netflix-paired delivery joints, deals and so on. However, I do have a take on this. Liberalisation may have given birth to a surge in consumption, but it hasn’t changed basic diner-DNA that seeks familiarity. As avant garde as you would be, solace is often found in a specific ingredient, grain, scent. The Indian diner has evolved dramatically in the last five years, with increased patronage towards global cuisine and food-tech. But it also ensured a thali festival to sell out within three days of going live, in 2018 and 2019.
2. India’s wealth is its diverse people and traditions
Devdutt Pattnaik accurately states that the best way to destroy culture is to destroy the kitchen. Kitchens give birth to community, nurture tradition and preserve important culinary heritage. I am blown away by the fascinating diversity offered by indigenous regions of our land. Forget different states, the very same arhar dal (pigeon pea pulse) is made differently in kitchens 200 metres apart. A Bohri thali teaches us the joy of communal eating, a Bengali thali encourages us to start the meal with shukto (a preparation of mixed vegetables with bitter gourd), a Khasi kitchen gives us the knowledge of smoking and fermenting, a Kayasth kitchen celebrates the Ganga-Jamuni composite culture, the Rajasthani thali showcases dishes with bare usage of fresh produce.
Ritu Dalmia is acclaimed for her Italian fare, but the roots are in her Calcutta-Marwari household. She explains, “Marwaris have always been migratory in nature and most of them settled in Rajasthan, Calcutta, Surat, Nagpur, basically wherever they could make money. While a Rajasthani menu includes gatta, chakki, papad manger, sanger, Marwari food was heavily influenced by the zone they settled in. For example, the famous Aloo Kumda ki Sabzi made in every Marwari household has Bengali influences with the use of panch phoran.”
From homes and kitchens across the country to state bhavans to mass-concepts like Chokhi Dhani, the thali has remained cemented in the pages of culinary history and culture. It would be foolish to state that it’s making a comeback or making a formidable case study in the F&B business. While some are tweaking it to suit the millennial audience (heads up, most of it has always been gluten free, don’t be fooled!), some are presenting a half-baked version of the authentic thali and riding the trend-wave, many across the globe continue their deep love for the apparently-humble, not-too-sexy, but wildly-satisfying thali.
Ask the shauhar. He almost reconsidered the marriage on our post-wedding holiday to Japan while looking at his thali-devouring wife in Kyoto. Like father, like daughter. Like food, must love thali.
The writer is a management consultant turned curator and food entrepreneur. She runs an experiential marketing agency, DSSC