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The Great Indian Thali – History and Culture behind the food

Like the Italians the Indians are very serious about their food and a trip to the Indian subcontinent is incomplete without intriguing ones palate with the Thali. Mind you each region has its own thali and contents seem to vary but the essence – Very much Indian.

Ancient people discovered ways to present, enjoy, and digest food in incredible ways. Thali is one of the important revolutions of traditional Indian food. Thali provides incredible nutrition while exciting all taste buds.

The Thali is the product of several key age-old aspects of Indian life:

  • The importance of nutritionally balanced meals
  • An interest in a variety of flavors and textures
  • The need for portion control to avoid overeating and ensure nutritional balance
  • An aversion to sharing food from communal serving dishes

Features and Contents of the Thali

Thali is basically a plate on which the food is served, usually made up of stainless steel and arranged around it are an array of tiny saucers or bowls containing all the delicacies.

History:: The first mention of dunas — or small bowls — can be found in texts from the Vedic period, but the portioning we see in today’s thalis has its roots in the establishment of social structures and hierarchy levels. During times of war, for example, a soldier’s thali had more proteins and carbohydrates with bold flavors that were supposed to induce vigor. The same thali would comprise light dishes and subtly flavored sweets during peace time.

Most Indian thalis feature palate cleansers. In the Manipuri Chakluk, it’s the cabbage salad. In Uttar Pradesh, it is the kachumber and in Odisha, a small cup of ripened papaya or coconut meat with mint serves the purpose. Palate cleansers help diners experience flavors better and also negate the need to drink water — which is said to impede digestion — during a meal.

The portion of the food of the thali depends on the composition of the food and its effect on the three biological energies found throughout the human body — vatta, pitta and kapha. According to the classics of Ayurveda, the Charaka Samhita and Susruta-samhita, any food — pickles, for instance — that has been cured/preserved is high on vitamin and antioxidants, and hence, works on the principle that less is more.

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The biggest similarity between all Indian thalis is they are highly seasonal and local and display popular, indigenous cooking techniques – steaming, fermenting, grilling, deep frying, baking/‘zammin doz , bhuno, dhunnaar (smoking), boiling. The other common factor among thalis is the use of clarified butter or ghee, which is considered to have medicinal properties that help digest food and build immunity while lending a rich aroma to the dish. This could be by way of basting (like in kababs and rotis) or as flavourant (in dal and khichdi).

In an ancient time in India when the concept of the desert was foreign, in fact, sweets were served right before a meal. These sweets — usually made of jaggery, nuts and millets or flour — helped in filling one up until the time food was laid out. The philosophy behind this practice prevented overeating to a certain extent and helped diners savour the meal. Curiously, in Bengal, perhaps the only state to follow the French La russe style of courses, the meal starts with shukto, a vegetable medley prepared with a bitter vegetable, whose taste is enhanced with the use of sugar and milk.

Most Indian thalis feature fritters to introduce variety, texture and new ingredients that preserved a good amount of their natural nutrients. Odisha’s pumpkin flower fritters are an excellent example of relatively healthy fritters.

The different preparations in a typical South Indian thali are placed from left to right, with rice at the centre of the banana leaf or thali while the accompaniments such as pickles and salad are placed from right to left, the main stars are placed from the left to the right in the Bengali thali.

Here are the few important thalis of India:

Punjabi Thali

The colorful and rich aroma enhanced with clarified butter (ghee) is the Punjabi way to eat. Aloo Kulcha, Punjabi Chole, Paneer Tikka, Butter Chicken, Tandoori Chicken, Aloo Paratha, Dal Makhani, Kadi Chaval, Rajma Chaval, Makke Di Roti, Sarso Da Sagh. No matter if that takes all the space in your system, a glass of Sweet Lassi is a must.

Rajasthani Thali

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Rajasthani thalis personify the true dining experience. They have rotis, pooris, kachauris, and parathas made of wheat flour. But their highlights are the rotis made of Bajra, Makka, and Jowar. They make use of Besan extensively. Daal baati churma is a speciality here. Gatte ki sabzi is another famous personality on the Rajasthani thali.

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Bengali Thali

Bengali Thali is a perfect blend of sweet and spicy flavors. Bengali rice pudding called as Payesh, is consumed on special occasions, making it an important part of the Bengali thali. The other members on the Bengali Thali are, Shukto, 5 types of fries- Aloo bhaja, Potol bhaja, Kumro bhaja, Begun bhaja, Uuche bhaja, and torkari, Daal, chutney, and the very famous Fish. They are masters when it comes to preparing the ultimate melt-in-the-mouth sweet like Rosogolla, Mishti Doi, Kalo Jaam, Bengali Rabri, Gujias, Jibe Goja, Jolbhora Shondesh.

Gujarati Thali

Gujarati thali is mostly vegetarian. Meals are served on a thali, a metal tray on which roti, rice, and small bowls are placed. A different kind of sweet flavor is prevalent in almost all the food items. Gujarati meal usually consists of rice, bread, rotli, and vegetable curry called ‘Shaak’. They also have a variety of snack items like,thepla, maal purah, puri, bhakhri, and puran-pohli, hari and khakhra, dal-dhokli, chevdoh, dhokla, undhiyu, khaman, bhusu, fafda, dhokli, papdi, and sev mamra.

Maharashtrian Thali

The thali will have a little amount of rice in one corner with daal in a bowl, and chappati on the other corner. Maharashtrians are known for their extremely spicy with different masala. There are a variety of bhajis like, batatyachi bhaji, vaangyache bharit, aamati, matkichi bhaji, and many more. With sabudaana vada, a refreshing glass of mattha, kanda poha, danyachi usal and the awesome pav bhaji, which are irresistible. Not forgetting the varan bhaath which is the king of the thali. With sweets like aamras and sheera, the thali is certinaly not lacking when it comes to desserts. Pooran poli is another famous sweet .

Kerala Thali

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The food is traditionally eaten by hands and served in banana leaves. Abundant use of coconut oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves and coconut milk are used in their daily cooking. There is no ‘rule’ to this thali and it contains liberal helpings of rice, sambhar, kootu (vegetable curry cooked with lentils), kosumri, paapadam, curd, and for dessert, there’s paayasam (a sweet made with rice and lentils) to complete the meal.

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Goan thali

Goan food is synonymous with sea food, rice, coconut, fish and yes, kokum! You have Goan rice bhakri, Goan daali thoy, kele ambat, vegetable vindaloo, Goan kokum curry, and Goan banana halwa to top it up! Goan cuisine is also characterized by having some of the hottest curries, like Vindaloo. Due to its coastal location, seafood is also quite prevalent

Chhattisgarhi Thali

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Chattisgarhi thalis are a long, drawn out yet totally delicious affair. You’ll be spoilt for choice with dishes like fara, rice pakoras, dehati vada and muthiya. The Chattisgarhi Thali stands out with it’s variet of breads like angakar poori, paan roti, and chusela. In desserts, watch out for the gulgulle, kusli and sweet fara.

Assamese Thali

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A traditional Assamese Thali presents a burst of fresh and unusual herby flavors. Rice is accompanied by the popular masor tenga (fish in a sour gravy) and khar, a vegetable preparation made using dried banana skin and a meat dish, usually either a chicken curry or duck curry with ash-gourd. Kharoli, a paste mustard seeds rolled into little balls and bamboo shoot chutney is offered as a taste-enhancer on the side. Typical Assamese aloo pitika (mashed potato) consists of boiled egg and mustard oil. The sumptuous meal is to be finished with Assamese payox (kheer).

Meghalaya Thali

People from Meghalaya like boiled veggies a lot as they are considered to be very healthy. Puklein is another delicious snack available all over Meghalaya. Black sesame is used in an almost very dish. For example, the special dal, “daineiiong” is incomplete without it.

Oriya (aka Odisha)

The ingredients used in Oriya cuisine typical to the region are plantains, jackfruit, and papaya. The curries are also garnished with dried raw mango (ambula) and tamarind. Coconut is also used in several dishes. Panch phutana is a blend of five spices which is widely used in Oriya cuisine. It contains mustard, cumin, fenugreek, aniseed, and kalonji.Garlic and onion are also used but is avoided in temple regions. Turmeric and red chilies are also commonly used.

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