The Republic of Thalis

If I could take a speaker and announce a PSA, it would be this - Indian food cannot be defined as just curry. 

Why? Because curry is a simplification, a word born of English colonial rule, one that robs India of the complexity and range of its cuisine. 

The English word ‘Curry’ comes from the Tamil word ‘Kari’, which refers to a sauce (or gravy) eaten along with rice in a meal. The word was originally used as a broad classification of a group of dishes, but over time it became the single word to describe all food from India or the Indian subcontinent. 

India is more than just a land of curries. In my opinion, one of the best ways to showcase our cuisine and highlight the beautiful diversity of our regions, states, towns, villages or homes, is through a thali

Well, what is a thali?

A thali means a plate in Hindi. In culinary references, when someone from India or South Asian heritage serves you a thali, it means you get a single or a multicourse meal and sides on one plate. From the legendary thalis like a ‘Chappan Bhog,’ a 56 dish celebratory thali that is served to the God Krishna in many parts of India, to a humbler thali meal enjoyed by a common household, the course symbolises the hospitality, availability and creativity of South Asian cooks.

A typical thali is a combination of grains (rice, wheat, millet etc.), accompanying dishes such as vegetables and/or meats (could be stir-fried or curried), alongside pickles, chutneys, salads, sweets, and other sides (papadums, pakoras, bhajis, farsaan etc.). Some of these dishes are served directly on the thali or served on the plate in small bowls, known as katoris in Hindi.

A thali is my definition of culinary magic. I love the concept of thalis so much that my audition dish in MasterChef Australia was a ‘Koshur Thaal’ (Kashmiri thali), which showcased some of the most iconic dishes from my birthplace in India, Kashmir.

   Sandeep Pandit's Koshur Thaal (Source: Network10) 

The Ancient Connections

Food in India is seen as both nourishment and medicine. The ancient Indian medicine system ‘Ayurveda’ places a special emphasis on the diet (aahar). Ayurveda talks about the need to have ‘Rasa’ (taste or flavour) to aid digestion and make the meal pleasurable. There are six Rasa(s): sweet or 'madhura', sour or 'amla, salty or 'lavana', pungent or 'tikha', bitter or 'katu' and astringent or 'kasaya'. In most regions of India, a thali always showcases these six flavours and is a burst of flavours and textures in your mouth. Furthermore, a thali could have anywhere two to 56 varying dishes served in small portions, which makes it comparable to the French-originated concept of degustation

A Glimpse into the thalis of India

India’s fluctuating weather patterns, cultivation practices, types of soils, cultures, past influences and spices play a crucial role in formulating the thalis across the country - creating hundreds of different versions spanning states, towns, neighbourhoods and households. So buckle up as we travel the country to offer you a glimpse into the various kinds of thalis served around the nation. 

Let's travel North

Situated by perennial rivers from the Himalayas, the Northern parts and the north-central plains of India are rich in agriculture and fresh produce, leading the thalis composition to reflect the availability of the produce during a season. The thalis from here prominently feature seasonal produce and while extremely flavorful, do not typically utilise curry leaves.

Home to 1.3 billion people, the range and variations of the thalis for the North are endless. However, greens, lentils, fresh veggies, fruits, meat with rotis or rice are fundamentally the typical choices for hot summer months, whereas winters see thalis full of rich and creamy delights, seasoned with a spectacular array of spices and loaded with local winter produce. Moreover, to add to the list of variations, the influences of the Mughal Empire rule remain more profound in the North, which can be felt in the thalis as well. 

The beauty of the South

Southern India has historically been the epicentre of the global spice trade through the sea routes. This abundance of land and seas makes South Indian food a treasure trove of culinary experiences, with substantial variations in the cuisine felt from one state to the next. 

Akin to the other popular food choice in the South, the thalis from here are usually vegetarian and consist of salad, lentils, rice or bread, veggies, sweets and yogurt. Most of the dishes carry a notable flavour of beautiful curry leaves alongside punchy mustard seeds and an assortment of spices. Alternatively, an abundance of sea life also makes the thalis from this region a pescatarian’s delight.

What about the West?

The North-Western and Western India consist of culturally rich lands paired with an expanse of arid deserts. The thalis from Rajasthan and Gujrat have an abundance of dry or dried produce, spices and milk-based products. As one travels further South West, the desert gives way to the rich Western Ghats, and cuisines from the regions of Konkan (Goa and Coastal Karnataka) and Maharashtra become a delicious fusion of what the land and the sea offer. The thalis here are further remarkable for their vibrant array of colours and carry notable influences from Portuguese cuisine.

   A colourful Goan thali (Source: LLB Goa) 

Making our way to the East

The Eastern regions of India, Bengal, Odisha and parts of Assam, are home to the Delta region of the great Ganges. The thalis from here are an array of magnificent land and fresh river produce accompanied by a range of spices. The delta region creates vast land fields of flood plains ideal for rice cultivation, leading to rice being a true staple in Eastern India. The malleable beauty of rice is remarkably celebrated in the East, with thalis from the region almost always consisting of various savoury rice dishes and complex rice sweets. Additionally, the spices from the region tend to be milder in flavour, bestowing the food a more fermented, earthy Umami flavour.

So, let's create a [simple] thali 

A thali needs to be complex for your tastebuds, not complicated to assemble. In my thali, I love to have a main carb, a dipping dish, a dal, some pickles, a sweet, a peppery salad and a nice ginger chai or a filter coffee to end the meal. Furthermore, adding a fried or a textured element, like a papadum or bhaji (fritters), makes the joys of consuming a thali all the more appetising. Here are some quick links to help you make your own thali

Tutorials on how to make: a pulao or pilaf, pickles, tomato chutney, dal fry, paratha, stir-fried veggies and a peanut masala salad (read - your next weekend cook). 

To conclude, if you take away one thing from this article, let it be this - the next time someone says "let's have Indian tonight" and narrows our cuisine to a curry, speak out and say, "let me take you through the republic of thalis".

Sandeep Pandit is a passionate cook, a food writer, a former MasterChef Australia contestant and a host on SBS’s new food show, India Unplated. You can connect with him via Instagram.