They say that dialect, food and culture changes every 100 km in a country as diverse as India. And what better way to dissect a culture than by dissecting its food. To explore this diversity within our massive country, we set upon a journey; one, where we look for a format that’s pleasing to the eyes, nose, and taste buds, culminating into an overall sensory delight. Our conclusion: You haven’t got the real taste of India unless you have discovered, explored, tried, tasted and tested the opulence of a thali—a platter adorned with piping hot food, carefully arranged, colourfully resplendent, showcasing variety (easily containing 10 to 15 dishes, sometimes more) and boasting of overall and balanced nutrition, like how a complete meal should be. Not to mention how highly photogenic an Indian thali is (Have you seen their photographs on Instagram?). Whether laid out on a banana leaf or a steel or silver plate (also called a thali), the thali will have matching bowls (katoris) that offer small portions of various regional delicacies.
Unity in diversity
We started off in the West, made our way down South, then Far East and finally to the North. If there’s one similarity that ties together a diverse country it is this thali. Not because there were any common dishes. In fact, no two thalis were alike. But the common thread was the traditional dishes—native specialities; each of the 32 thalis focussed on highly local and seasonal produce and ingredients, and made sure these local heroes stood out. This local, often unsung, hero could be a herb like the Gongura (Roselle leaves) in Andhra Pradesh, the mattu gulla (local green brinjal) in Udupi or the Outenga (elephant apple) in Assam—be prepared to be surprised and schooled. Where one community in the South used coconut in one form or the other because it is abundantly available locally, another used pepper, again indigenous to that area. Wheat is largely grown in North India and hence wheat bread, either in the form of parathas or roti, is the staple of a North Indian thali. On the other hand, abundantly grown rice is the central dish in a South Indian thali, and there is an absence of wheat bread. Oils that the food was cooked in also differed. Coconut oil was popular among the south-western coast, while the Andhra region used the locally produced sunflower and groundnut oil. The food in the East was cooked in Mustard oil, while rich Awadhi food in the North was cooked in pure ghee.
Through our food journey on our new show Utsav—Thalis of India, you will also witness on display the popular, indigenous cooking techniques of every region—steaming, fermenting, grilling, deep frying, baking, smoking, boiling, bhuno, to just name a few. There are several theories of how the thali evolved. Some find support in community eating, some in affluence—since the rich can afford to have more dishes on the thali. Another school of thought credits the thali to Ayurveda and the use of the Six Taste Theory (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent) to ensure meals balanced to the type of energy of your body aka your dosha.
The bait in first bite
Some communities try to lure you into the thali by starting off with a fried entrée—vegetable fritters, chips, mutton chop or fried fish— which provides textural balance; while others appease to your sweet tooth by kick-starting with the dessert. You will be surprised by the variety of desserts in India—picture a gorgeous deep violet hued sweet like the Kavuni Arisi, or a luscious and creamy Nimish that will melt in your mouth within seconds; each holding their own and rightful place on a thali. And how can one forget pickles and chutneys (made from indigenous and exotic ingredients), salads, and papads (whether made of jackfruit, or a grain or lentil)—all embellishments that provide flavour, texture, balance, heat, and spice to the meal. Then, there are the palate cleansers and all thalis have a digestive at the end, either in the form of a buttermilk or simple curd rice.
If we have tickled your appetite enough, then join us on our culinary journey across India as we sample thalis from different regions and communities in India. Tune in to Living Foodz HD and Living Foodz for our brand new Utsav—Thalis of India. Make sure to tune in with your full appetite because a thali is not a thali till you feel that you can’t possibly finish all this food!