Indian Thali – who does not love eating that riot of flavors and tastes.
If you are an Indian, you probably know the different Indian Thalis found across the geography of India. If you are a visitor, you need to know that there is no single Indian Thali. Each region of India has its own version of Thali.
Some of the items like Rice or Pickle are found in almost all Indian Thalis. However, there is something unique about each Thali, some preparation that makes it belong to a particular region in India. I am going to share the unique aspect of each Indian Thali in this post.
Being a vegetarian, I am going to restrict this to Vegetarian Thalis of India, for that is all I know.
What is an Indian Thali?
Well, Thali is actually the large circular plate raised around the circumference on which food is served. It is usually made of metal. Steel is the most commonly used material these days, followed by brass. Copper Thalis can be seen at places as can be experimental clay ones. The Gods, kings and the wealthy used to have the Thalis made of Gold and Silver. Maybe they still use.
Food is served on a plate and in small bowls called Katoris. It is like putting the sample of the whole menu at one place, in one go.
Indian Thali is supposed to have the 6 tastes that Ayurveda prescribes. The six tastes being:
A perfect Indian Thali is the one that balances these six tastes. It is not just the tastes, but the colors are also balanced. The Thali, when served, is as colorful as India is as a country. You will see reds, greens, browns, yellow & white colors in the dishes. The aromas from various dishes mish-mash and create their own riot. In short, a Thali appeals to all your five senses.
There is a play of grains based on what is easily available locally. This makes Indian Thali perfect local cuisine to try. Rice, Raita and Salad is usually a part of all Indian Thalis.
In the western world, food is served course by course. To me, this is like someone else deciding what I should eat and in what order. When the meal is served, I choose to eat in whatever order, though the purist would always suggest an order.
A Lassi or Chhaas goes perfectly with Indian Thali. Take your pick based on the weather.
So, let’s take a tour around India with the Indian Thali.
1. Rajasthani Thali
Call me biased, but Rajasthani Thali is my favorite Indian Thali. It comes with the flavors of the desert that are dry and rich at the same time. Richness comes from oodles of desi ghee used. Some unique dishes to try in a Rajasthani Thali are:
- Dal Bati Churma – a true blue desert food
- Gatte ki Subzi – when the vegetables are not easily available, gram flour is used to make curry
- Ker Sangri – This is one indigenous wild plant that grows across the desert. You get both Sabzi and pickle from Ker Sangri
- Bajre ki Roti – Roti made of Bajra, usually drier than wheat roti, so eaten with a layer of Desi Ghee
- Lahsun ki Chutney – Garlic Chutney
- Khichdi – A multi-grain khichadi with Wheat, Bajra & Jowar
- Kadhi – although you find it in many menus, each region has its own recipe
- Roasted Papad
- Ghevar – a traditional Rajasthani sweet dish, usually available in monsoon season.
2. Bengali Vegetarian Thali
Vegetarian and Bengali sound bit of an oxymoron. However, to my delight, they do have a lot of options for vegetarians. There is no dearth of flavors or options for vegetarians. Bengalis like to add a bit of sweet in their food, so everything, except maybe rice has a tinge of sweetness in it.
What makes a Bengali Thali is:
- Mishto Doi – Told you everything is sweet here & the sweet set curd is the most celebrated part of Bengali meal.
- Baingan Bhaja – Brinjal or Aubergine fries
- Aaloo Posto – Potato cooked with poppy seeds, a combination you find only in Bengal
- Luchi – It is like a small-sized Poori, but made with Maida, and tastes a bit different
- Rasgulla or Roshogulla – No Bengali Thali is complete without this favorite sweet of Kolkata.
- Daal, seasonal vegetables cooked in mustard oil and rice complete the menu.
3. Goan Vegetarian Thali
Yes, it is not impossible to get a vegetarian Thali in Goa. It is not easy but you do get it at many places. Remove all the non-vegetarian food from a Goan Thali and you are left with rice, salad & sol kadi.
Now add shallowly fried, semolina soaked Phodi made with local vegetables including banana, roots, and breadfruit. That is the crispy element on the menu, found only in Goa.
Add a seasonal vegetable in coconut curry.
Daali Toye – a watery and rather bland version of the usual Daal.
Add Tambri Bhaji or Patal Bhaji usually made with red leaves
That is your Goan Vegetarian meal.
4. Gujarati Kathiawadi Thali
Just like Indian meals, there are various variants of a Gujarati Thali. Kathiawadi Thali is particularly famous. Like Bengali Thali, Gujarati one is also quite sweet. It is incidental that the east and west of India has a similar fetish for sweet. However, in Gujarat, you find a generous flavor of garlic. Many dishes will have a pre-fix Lehsunia, which means ample garlic.
- Tamatar Shev ki Sabji – This is what defines a Gujarati Thali for me.
- Papad ki Subji – yes you can make a curry from Papad too
- Undhiyo – a version of Khichadi
- Dhokla or Khandvi shine with their bright yellow color
- Small sized Rotis or Bhakris made of Bajra accompany the meal.
- Desi Ghee and Jaggery are used to give a finishing touch to the Gujarati Kathiawadi Thali
5. Punjabi Thali
What I am going to share here is my version of a Punjabi Thali, the one I love and miss. Best time to have this meal is in winters while soaking in the warm sun. This has limited menu options, but as they say in Punjab – Sawa Lakh se Ek ladaun or my one dish is worth thali full of yours. So, this Punjabi Thali has:
- Sarson ka Saag with a thick layer of desi ghee floating on it.
- Freshly made Makki ki Roti with a layer of what else, Desi Ghee.
- Raddish or Mooli dipped in vinegar or maybe lime juice
- A bit of raw onion
- Mango Pickle
- Chunks of jaggery or Gud to end the meal
Simple thali but the taste would linger on your tongue for a long time to come.
6. Malwa Thali from Madhya Pradesh
This is an unusual, not so well-known Thali from the heart of India. I had it in Mandu, which was once the capital of Malwa. It is also a relatively simple meal, but it demands some time and patience from you to develop a liking for it. Honestly, I did not like its key ingredients Paaniya and Daal Bafna in the first go. Slowly, the taste began to get friendlier with my tongue.
Paaniya is made with corn flour or Makki ka Aata while Bafna is made with Toor Daal. They used to be typically roasted on cow dung in a traditional Chulha or open fire. The dish would be covered with leaves as it cooked. These days they are typically baked in a tandoor or clay oven.
Apart from these two heroes of a Malwa meal, you have daal, rice, seasonal vegetable, kadhi, salad and a sweet.
7. Andhra Thali
The Andhra cuisine in my mind stands as the spiciest cuisine of India. A layer of red from the red hot Guntur Chilles always floats on its dishes, especially the sambhar and rasam. A pile of shining white rice comes with bright curries. The things that make an Andhra Thali are
- Parripu Podis – Dry lentil-based chutney powders. You can add them to any other items, after mixing it with ghee or Til oil.
- Gongura – this is sour leave that you get only in Andhra and hence only in Andhra cuisine. You may find it as part of Dal or as chutney or as part of a side dish. Personally, this is the high point of Andhra meal for me.
- Baingan Subzi – Many regions of India have Brinjal as part of their special fair, Andhra is also one of them.
- Avakai – An Andhra style mango pickle, true to the cuisine it is spicy.
If you are not used to spices like me, take a big bowl of curd to balance the spice level.
8. Kashmiri Thali
A vegetarian Kashmiri Thali has to be custom made on order in most of Kashmir. During my Gulmarg visit, I had the opportunity to explore a vegetarian one. The unique elements include:
- Nadru or the Lotus stem crisps. They can also come in the form of stuffed Kebabs.
- Kashmiri Dum Aaloo – The whole potato cooked in curry is a defining element of Kashmiri cuisine for vegetarians like me.
- Haak – lightly sautéed fresh greens that have a tinge of the bitter taste
- Walnut Chutney – Walnut comes from Kashmir; you find it everywhere including in the furniture and souvenirs made from walnut wood. In your Kashmiri meal, taste it as tangy walnut chutney.
- Kashmiri Roti – Tandoori roti usually infused with spices
- Phirni – threadlike noodles cooked in milk with nuts on top is a soothing sweet dish, save some space for it.
- Raita with Gheeya or bottle gourd is popular in Kashmir
- Kahwah – No matter what you eat in Kashmir, finish it with a cup of saffron infused, nut loaded Kashmiri Kahwah.
9. North Karnataka Thali
This is a Thali that I remember from my Infosys days. This used to be served on a Banana leaf. It also meant you sometimes had to wait in the queue to have it, but it was worth it.
It is a rather simple meal of freshly made Jowar Rotis and Baingan Subzi. This was the meal. Rice and Sambhar were given but more to complete the meal. A glass of spiced Chhaas went perfectly with the Jowar Roti meal. Pickles, salads and fried papads were served in multiple rounds. A cooked grains vegetable would be there, but it was mostly ignored.
Not too many options, but a tasty wholesome meal.
10. Maharashtra Thali
Maharashtra again is a big state. Different variants of Maharashtrian Thali are available in different parts of the state. In a generic thali, apart from Daal, Rice, Roti and seasonal vegetables, you can expect the following
- Sabudana Wada comes as a starter for me, I simply love it
- Varan Bhat – Maharashtrian version of Khichdi
- Amti or the Chana Daal, the Maharashtrian style
- Puran Poli – a favorite Maharashtrian mild sweet dish
- Shrikhand – I am not too fond of Shrikhand, but don’t that to Maharashtrians ????. You get it in various flavors including Mango called Amrakhand.
11. Ladakhi Vegetarian Thali
Ladakh is another region where vegetarian food is not easy to find, but not impossible. In these parts of the world, a vegetarian Thukpa is the staple food for me. It is a noodle soup with few vegetables thrown in, along with lots of garlic. Garlic helps you deal with the mountain sickness at high altitudes. Do read our post on Vegetarian Food in Ladakh.
Others things that add up a vegetarian Ladakhi Thali are:
- Vegetable Noodle Soup with boiled grains like a variety of mini chana thrown in with mild spices
- Vegetable Momos with Walnut Chutney
- Apricot based dessert
- Cheese platter, though not traditional is easily available
- Gud Gud Chai – Tea made with butter and salt
- Chaang – a local fermented drink
12. Karnataka Thali
Sit down and wait for a banana leaf to be laid in front of you, that you must wash before you eat. A series of servings will follow, starting with salt, sweet, pickle and Papad. Wait for all the servings to be served and admire the whole menu in front of you on a bright green background.
My favorite part, of course, is the crisp fried papads and bhajjis which are like pakodas or fritters.
Tangy Sambhar with drumsticks is the highlight of this meal. Enjoy it with rice.
13. Lucknow Thali
Lucknow is usually known for its street food and Kebabs. The vegetarian in me loved the street food of Lucknow. I love the Bedmi Puri meal. It has stuffed Puris along with Chana, Raita, seasonal vegetable & Chutney. Add a glass of Lassi and you have one of the most satisfying meals.
14. Nepali Thali
The food in Nepal is not very different from India. Daal and rice are a staple there too. Seasonal local vegetables are cooked and eaten with the staple.
15. Ashram Thali
I have eaten across Ashrams in India, be in Kanchi Kamkoti Peetham in Kanchipuram or an Ashram in Ayodhya or at Kumbh Mela Bhandaras or at local temples in Goa. No matter which ashram you eat at, the food is more than just food. There is a spirituality in food. It is served with devotion as a prasad or blessing from God, and that’s what makes it special.
Ashram food is served on a leaf, mostly banana leaf in south India. The food is made without using any Tamasic elements like onion or garlic. The food is simple yet sumptuous, it satisfies you instantly. The cuisine is usually local, made using local seasonal vegetables. Eat it with gratitude.
I think if you want to taste the basic cuisine of different meals from India, you must try some at an Ashram.