The thali reaffirms that variety is the spice of life

The thali reaffirms that variety is the spice of life

Many restaurants in Islamabad have taken to reinventing the one plate dish that boasts multiple flavours
23 May, 2016

Those who subscribe to Ayurvedic notions of nutrition believe that each meal should consist of the six ‘tastes’ of food: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. But although there is little call for ancient Indian medical texts in the modern world, the tastes of the subcontinent live on.

The thali is just one such tradition that is still alive and kicking, from street-corners to the more well-heeled establishments. A thali is simply a tray – usually metallic – featuring single servings of foods of all six different ‘tastes’, which is still extremely popular in several parts of the subcontinent, especially in India and Nepal.

While the contents of this kaleidoscope of flavours vary from region to region, there is always naan or roti and rice as a staple, accompanied by one daal dish, one vegetable dish and – in the non-vegetarian option – one or two meat dishes. These are accompanied by raita, salad and achaar, followed by a dessert.

The outlay is elegantly simple but hugely successful. In fact, a whole generation of moviegoers have watched the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and other Bollywood stars eating out of a thali in one film or the other.

Purveyors of traditional subcontinental food are turning back to an old classic

The culinary scene in the capital also boasts a couple of impressive thali joints that are guaranteed to tantalise the taste buds and offer extremely good value for money.

The first is a little-known eatery in the F-10 Markaz that has, believe it or not, been around for at least 13 years. Hyderabadi Chatkhara opened its doors in the year 2003, recalls Mohammad Ashraf, the manager.

Tucked away between tyre shops and a few banks, this quaint little dhaba is a lightning rod for those who like a kick of spice in their food.

“Although our chaats and bhelpuris are the most-selling items for takeaway customers, nearly everybody who comes to eat at the restaurant itself orders a thali. It is just such a complete meal,” Mr Ashraf says from behind his perch at the establishment.

A Bengal inspired platter
A Bengal inspired platter

Honed by a Bengali cook, the thali here consists of Bhigaray Baingan, or an eggplant curry; mirchi ka saalan, khatti daal and behari chicken. The platter is served with rice and roti and topped off with a gulab jamun.

“The recipes and flavours come from Hyderabad Deccan; the food is prepared in the traditional way and seasoned according to Hyderabadi tastes,” says Mr Ashraf.

When the outlet opened in 2003, the thali cost a mere Rs140. Today, it is priced at Rs320, a bargain by any standards.

Compared to this, the mixed thali on offer at that other Islamabad institution – Table Talk in Kohsar Market – is far more urbane and adapted to suit the tastes of everyone who comes to eat there.

Since Kohsar Market is frequented by expatriates and millennials, the spice levels are much milder here. But this does not mean that their thali has lost any of its inherent desi-ness.

“We opened in 2002 and started serving the thali the day we opened. Our spice levels haven’t been toned down one bit,” said Rifat Mani – or Rify to her friends – who runs Table Talk.

Although the restaurant offers a variety of desi and continental cuisine, the kinds of thali on offer here are strictly traditional. The mixed thali, a perennial favourite, features qeema, chicken curry, daal and aalo ka salan, accompanied by fresh puris and crisp parathas and topped off with a delicately-flavoured kheer.

A similar selection – minus the meat – is available with the vegetarian option, while a chaat platter is a must-have for those who love chatpatta foods.

But Table Talk’s thali is elevated by the green chilli pickle and slightly-sweet vegetable raita that accompanies it. Wash it down with a glass of lassi, and your day is made.

With the mushroom growth of more restaurants wanting to reinvent old classics, the thali market does have more options now than ever before. There is the upstart Karachi-based chain, Chacha Jee, based in Centaurus; even Behbud Cafe in Super Market offers a vegetarian thali. But none of them quite manage to capture the taste and the spirit of this most traditional of subcontinental dishes quite as well as the old masters.

Originally published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2016


sharath chandra May 23, 2016 10:23am
"Thali" is such a satisfying meal, especially as a lunch.
Hitesh May 23, 2016 10:38am
nothing beats the Gujarati Thali in Ahmedabad (multiple restaturants that serves it). Though purely vegetarian but the superb taste and variety ensures that if you eat it once, you will be a fan of it forever!
sharath chandra May 23, 2016 10:49am
"Thali" in a good restaurant in India costs on an average Rs 125.00.
nasr May 23, 2016 11:10am
Another cultural import from Neighboring India. Aren't we already overwhelmed by so much of Indian cultural integrated in our society?
I.M. KHAN May 23, 2016 11:33am
@sharath chandra ; I had it in Bombay in 1980 for a cost ranging from Rs. 1.25 to Rs. 2.00 only. It was not called THALI but RICE PLATE.
ZAK May 23, 2016 11:35am
@nasr there is no invasion.. This culture is yours and mine too.. I cant get enough.. seriously.
Arvind May 23, 2016 11:41am
@nasr The culture of India and Pakistan are always same. Even the blood is same. Two children of same mother.
Pnpuri May 23, 2016 11:50am
@nasr why call it cultural import from India ? It is our common heritage. I being a Punjabi and born and brought up in cities, at times found idea of thali a little alien, but as one moves away from Delhi, thali becomes more visible. Probably as you will move away from punjab toward Karachi, you will find something similar in sindh.
Sami May 23, 2016 12:12pm
@nasr "Another cultural import from Neighboring India. Aren't we already overwhelmed by so much of Indian cultural integrated in our society?" -- Relax there Nasr, no one is trying to convert you to becoming and Indian, if that is what you are afraid of. Besides, it is a great culture and it is part of our culture. We are the same people!
SGH May 23, 2016 12:29pm
@nasr . Good taste and excellent flavor do not recognize the borders. There are many Pakistani dishes and Mithai specialities, that are liked in India.
shubs May 23, 2016 12:35pm
@nasr "Another cultural import from Neighboring India." Is anything in Pakistan taken at face value, or is everything, from food, to media, to music, to governance, international relations, dependent on what India does? After you read this article, did you even pause to think, maybe I should give it a try? I can guarantee you that Indians do not have Pakistan on their minds while enjoying a plate of nihari! It may be worthwhile to get off that one-track mind...
Ahsan May 23, 2016 12:39pm
Not a Pakistani culture.
Ahmar Qureshi May 23, 2016 12:46pm
Now a days, the improvised version of Thaali is Platter! A stacked variety of food that is offered in an affordable package. It is quite enticing & ignites the hunger upon watching multiple savory dishes served in an articulated manner! :-) I'm starting to feel a bit Hunger now! :-D
raw is war May 23, 2016 01:03pm
@sharath chandra that is equal to 190 Pakistani Rupees.
Ronak May 23, 2016 01:13pm
@nasr India and Pakistan share the same culture historically. It's not an import to Pakistan or vice versa.
Tahir Tuntunwala May 23, 2016 01:22pm
@nasr Food should not be limited to one country after all we were all Indian pre-1947 so let's enjoy the diversity.
Ram Charan May 23, 2016 01:24pm
@nasr Yeah right, Pakistanis look like Chinese a lot.
rahul1 May 23, 2016 02:14pm
@nasr There is no harm in imbibing good practices . Genetically & look wise people of Pakistan are alike Indians.
lafanga May 23, 2016 03:34pm
I prefer my raita, daal or meat gravy on top of my rice so I have no use for thali. I believe majority of Pakistanis will find thali way of serving the food to be alien to them.
Karma May 23, 2016 06:04pm
..South Indian thali is the best..
Pnpuri May 23, 2016 07:54pm
@I.M. KHAN South Indian thali with rice 4small puris along with sambar rasam papad two /three vegetable was costing rs1.50 to 2in 1980
Nasr May 24, 2016 01:12am
@shubs I only viewed the presentation of food in Thali. I am from those who are proud of their tradition, heritage and culture but have been bothered by invasion or intrusion in the last two decades or so of other's culture and tradition in our society. I viewed it as a Pakistani for what we brought or inherited with us at the time of Partition and what we have embraced in the last two decades. I have not tried to distinguish what you or we eat. Of course Nihari the staple curry for everyone here in Pakistan either Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner, comes from Delhi but we inherited it. Thali has never been main stream in Pakistani culture or tradition.
Nasr May 24, 2016 01:16am
@Ram Charan My dear Pakistanis are the most beautiful.
Nasr May 24, 2016 01:21am
@Tahir Tuntunwala here I have not tried to distinguish between the subcontinent food. My views are about its presentation in Thali.
Sindhu Desh May 24, 2016 05:46am
@nasr Don't deny your heritage mate, embrace it. Accepting your history & culture won't make you a lesser Muslim.
Harish May 24, 2016 06:37am
Thali does give you variety and is ideal for lunch on a working day. Here in the United States there is (unlimited) buffet lunch which is not very common in India and I would imagine neither in Pakistan. Buffet consists of 15 to 20 dishes including 3-4 non veg items, appetizers, veggies, sweet dishes etc. You help yourself to whatever you want to eat. It's really great!
knightridertwofive May 24, 2016 02:14pm
Rs 320 for a thali !!! Daylight robbery !!!! A normal Indian Thali costs Rs 80/- to Rs 100/- only & in a fancy restaurant--about Rs 150/- tops......