Picture rows and rows of humans seated on the ground with their feet folded. Some servers carry steel buckets (yes, buckets), others carry three-pronged serving containers laden with food. They dash between the rows, bringing one course after another. The first group gets up, plates are cleared (these are made from banana leaves, fed to the cows after use, in a shining example of old-school, old-world recycling and sustainability) floors cleaned, new leaves are laid out, and a new batch of hungry humans arrives.
This continues for hours.
When I was a kid in India, this was the way wedding guests ate. And to this day, it’s how food is served in community kitchens of massive temple complexes like the Golden Temple in the North Indian state of Punjab. Often called the world’s biggest free kitchen, the Golden Temple provides a wholesome vegetarian meal to about 50,000 to 75,000 people every day, a number that easily doubles on days of religious significance.
This kind of communal feasting, according to one theory (though I’ll discuss other origin stories below), provided the conceptual foundation of thali. In this piece, I'll cover the meaning of "thali" and its history, look into thali today, and then share an example feast (with recipes!) from Gujarat.
Like many words in Indic languages, thali has more than one meaning; in its predominant usage, the Hindi word thali refers to the plate, generally made of steel, on which food is served. But thali also signifies a particular style and type of food served in restaurants. When you order thali, you’ll get a neatly, arranged plate (yes, that’s also called a thali) containing multiple bowls (known as katoris in Hindi) loaded with food.
Thali is a complete meal served on a single plate. Characterized by eye-popping variety and an imposing quantity, thali easily contains 10 to 15 dishes (including rice and bread): Don’t even think of ordering thali unless you’ve brought your full appetite! Even though individual components of thali may be prepared in homes on a regular basis, the full experience is reserved in its full splendor for festivals, days of religious significance, or ceremonies and social functions. Generally, you’re more likely to find thali in a restaurant than someone’s home.
Though thalis are found throughout the country (many of the twenty-nine Indian states have their own version), it is said that thali originated in South India. Dominated by rice, South Indian cuisine is replete with dishes, that are meant to be consumed on mixing with rice. Bread is to Italians what rice is to South Indians. Hence the center of platter in a South Indian thali is reserved for rice.
It is also said that thali has roots in Ayurveda (“Ayur” meaning life, “veda” meaning knowledge), the ancient Indian holistic system of medicine. The Ayurvedic philosophy states that any disease is the result of an imbalance and that to correct this imbalance, the whole person—mind, body, and spirit—must be tended to, with food as one of the primary means.
Jeff Perlman, Ayurveda specialist and chef, writes, “Long before the USDA established guidelines for a balanced diet, Ayurveda was using the Six Taste Theory to ensure meals balanced to the doshas (type of energy of the body), which regulate digestion, assimilation, and proper elimination.” Thali is said to be a complete representation of these six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent), which are essential for a balanced meal and a balanced body.
To give you a sense of ingredients that embody these tastes across cuisines…
The opulence of thali may also be connected to historical displays of prosperity. Since ancient times, one of the ways for the rich to show off their wealth has been through the variety of food cooked and served in their kitchens. The underprivileged could barely scrape together two meals a day and only dreamed of such luxury.
But after Indian independence (1947), masses migrated from villages and small towns to cities in search of a better livelihood. When paying for meals started becoming acceptable, roadside hotels and restaurants sold this dream of lavish eating in various price ranges and within affordable reach of the masses.
An endearing highlight of thali is its specific silverware, consisting of a round, platter-sized metal plate generally made of steel or bell metal and five to six matching katoris (bowls) and a drinking glass. Though gold thalis are not unheard of, silver thalis are used for religious offerings and for serving food to the bridal party in a wedding. Steel thalis are for everyday use in homes and restaurants. Matching silverware brimming with carefully arranged, colorfully splendid, steaming, hot food makes thali highly photogenic.
In India today, you’ll find thali at a wide range of prices and in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions. Some restaurants specialize in thali, while others offer them as well as à la carte meals.
Generally containing traditional dishes alongside native specialties, thalis focus on local, seasonal ingredients. 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.
In a South Indian thali, on the other hand, rice is the central dish and no patron would notice the absence of wheat bread. Gujarati, Rajasthani, South Indian, and Punjabi thalis are the most popular, though I would hesitate to eat a South Indian thali in North India or vice versa.
Last holiday season, I traveled with my family to the western Indian state of Gujarat. In our two-week trip, one meal a day, generally lunch, was thali. I remember the thrill of excitement and wellbeing rushing through my body when a platter adorned with piping-hot food was set down before me.
And when the server dropped steaming rotis—thin, and airy, and perfectly round— on my plate, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. But almost always, halfway through a meal, I would be enveloped by this panicked “how am I going to finish all this” fatigue. Thali is not a thali till you get hit by this panic.
Below, I’ve outlined the categories of dishes that typically make up a thali and given specific recipes for creating a Gujarati thali. You’ll notice that the various components fit into the Ayurvedic six-taste schematic: the sweet rice; the sour chaas; the salty papad; the pungent okra; the bitter fenugreek in the methi gota; the astringent potatoes in the batekanu shaak.
Gujarati food manages to achieve a unique balance between heat, spice, and sweetness. Though the generous use of sugar in cooked vegetables, lentils and pickles is not appreciated by many, I have come to admire how the Gujarati food has a forceful zing under the overt layer of sweetness.
In my book, this is the entrée of the meal. Comprising of 2 or 3 cooked vegetables (typically, one is “dry” and one is “wet”—I’ll deliberately refrain from using the word “curry” here) and scooped up with pieces of roti.
Often the main source of protein for vegetarians, lentil preparations called “dal” are super important in Indian meals. Prepared in countless varieties with multiple lentils and pulses, a thali is incomplete without it. Beans, prepared wet or dry, are also common in a thali.
Rice is the companion for lentils/dal.
Apart from rice, unleavened, whole wheat bread is the other staple of a thali. It functions like rice, as a vehicle to carry the rest of the thali’s dishes.
Fried dishes, like vegetable fritters, provide textural balance. Many appetizers tend to be fried in a Gujarati thali.
The variety of desserts in India are mind-boggling, and unlike in Western meals, desserts are served along with rest of the food in a thali.
Pickles, chutneys, and salads, and papads are the accessories that provide flavor, texture, spice, and heat to the meal.
Pleasing to the eyes, taste buds, and nose, thali proves to be an overall sensory delight and a meal that demands a nice long nap afterwards.
What meals or presentations do you consider to be culinary wonders of the world? Tell us in the comments below.