New Delhi: There was a time when almost everyone in India ate out of a thali. The word derives from thaal, a large circular tray, and has some connection with thal/sthal--a place. This is where food was traditionally 'placed' for consumption. It was a paatra (literally a vessel or container) deriving from the Sanskrit word patra meaning a leaf.
The earliest thali was obviously fabricated with leaves. The biodegradable pattal and the banana leaves commonly used as a plate in southern and coastal India remind us of this lineage. Times change and so do our eating habits. Indians gave up metallic thalis and adopted plates of porcelain, melamine, plastic and stainless steel. They also stopped sitting cross-legged on the floor or on low stools and eating with their hands. Thali was slowly erased from our memory. For the present generation, it has become synonymous with a specific set meal.
Thali meals are prefixed with geographical indicators or a particular community tag. Gujarati, Jain and Madrasi thalis are encountered all over the land. Gujarati thali is vegetarian so is the Jain one that adheres to even stricter commandments eschewing garlic, onion, roots and tubers that grow underground. The Madrasi thali is also vegetarian and comes in two versions: limited and full meals. Catering to North Indian patrons, the Udupi restaurants from Karnataka lost no time in introducing a North Indian thali with paneer, chhole, mah di daal and choice of bread: tandoori roti, paratha or kulcha.
In recent years the non-vegetarian south Indian thali has made a strong debut. Karaikudi-Chettinad recipes from Tamil Nadu and delicacies from Syrian Christian or Mopla Muslim repertoire in Kerala have won a small but loyal clientele. Andhra Pradesh took the lead in showcasing its ultra-hot meat and exceptional seafood in its regional thali. Restaurants like 'Oh Calcutta' and '6 Bally Gunj' have popularised culinary classics from East (present-day Bangladesh) and West Bengal with tantalising menus that include fish, fowl and flesh.
The array of thalis that we can choose from is bewildering with prices ranging from twenty rupees to a thousand times more.
The roadside kiosks and pushcarts sell a set thali with two parathas, dahi and achar or three puris and sabzi for 20-30 rupees. Add a fiver and you could have a more substantial meal of four rotis, half a plate of chawal, two vegetables and dal. In between, there are other options, kadhi chawal, rajma chawal, chhole kulche, veg paneer biryani. At the other extreme are multi-starred eateries that offer a unique fine dining experience to their guests foreign. The Taj group was the first to introduce de lux thali in their speciality Indian restaurants a few decades back. There has been no looking back since.
From time to time, a curated thali strives to take on the degustation of classy European eateries. The prices are deterring even for the well-healed--Rs. 7,500 ** excluding the wine pairing. If you like to tipple as you nibble that the bill may well soar to stratospheric heights Rs 15,000 ++ without gratuities. There are compensations. The dishes you eat off are silverware or bell metal at least with gold plated cutlery. Some of the dishes in curated thali are rarely encountered in the public domain. At the Marwar-Mewar-Malwa fest at the Oberoi Delhi Kr. Hemendra Singhji of Bhaisoragarh unveiled Hari Mirch ka Maans, Safed Kathhal, Shikar ke Alu and Malwa Gosht the rustic robust ancestor of the much-hyped Lal Maans.
Some time back a TV channel launched a travel come food show titled 'Utsav Thali' hosted by celebrity chef Kunal Kapur. The programme explored different regions of India to rediscover forgotten thalis (vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian) each with a distinct identity and allure of its own. From Trami in the Valley of Kashmir to Bohri thaal in Gujrat and the sadya spread on a banana leaf it was a veritable mouth-watering feast for the eyes.
The greatest joy of eating a thali meal is that it allows the diner to compose his own symphony of tastes and take delight in arranging the course wise sequence as per preference like bespoke tailoring. The katori (small bowls) represent a wide chromatic spectrum that most of the time gives a clue to their taste and pungency of spices. Some items are hot while others are at room temperature or even cold.
Ratika and Richa two enterprising Marwari sisters from Jaipur have come up with the fascinating idea of shrinking the thali into a pocket friendly 'platter' that reminds one of the table d'hote price fixe meals. The Cauldron Sisters as they like to call themselves have assembled/created some unusual thalis: the Parsi thali and Banarasi Thali. The platters priced between Rs. 250-500 come to the table in a handcrafted basket adorned with a piece of handwoven fabric with the edibles in clay pots.
The Thali continues to evolve. Those in search of the Thali Holy Grail can look forward to taste bud tickling multi-sensorial delights on this trail. Is this trend going to have an impact on the preparation and presentation of Indian foods or is there a twist in the tale awaiting us?