A thali, which literally translates to “plate,” refers to a self-contained set meal in India. The basic dishes that make up the meal generally include rice, roti, dal, a variety of curries, curd, a hot poppadum (a type of flatbread), and sometimes a sweet dessert. While many restaurants in India serve a full a la carte menu, if you’re looking for something that will be tasty and fresh with a variety of different flavors, order the thali.
There are several varieties of thali and what region of India you’re in will determine what it includes. While curries are common throughout the country, they are often paired with whatever the staple is in that area. Even with each state serving a different form of thali, many large Indian restaurants simplify their menu to just include either a single thali from their region, or a choice of a south or north Indian thali.
In south India, a thali is often served on a banana leaf, which is placed either directly on the table or over a metal plate. Rice is the standard staple, and it’s served in all-you-can-eat portions from big buckets. The complementary curries often include a soupy dal, carrots and green beans fried in chili, and curried potatoes and beetroot. South Indian curries are known for being fiery hot, salty, and packed with spices. If you’d like to eat non-vegetarian (known simply as non-veg in India), fish, shrimp, squid, chicken, and mutton are all widely available to add to your set meal.
A large thali can be presented with ten or more items. In north India most thalis are served on huge stainless steel platters that are either big trays or sectioned plates which can neatly accommodate a variety of different dishes. A fancier method is a single flat metal plate that comes with a number of small metal bowls which hold the contents of curries and side dishes. North India is less dominated by rice and more focused on breads like roti and chapatis (though rice is still widely available and often served in conjunction with bread). Along with the staples, north Indian dal is normally quite a bit thicker than south Indian dal, more of a lentil gravy than a soup. Vegetarian curries are normally thick, rich with ghee (clarified butter), and balanced with spices. Green peas, potatoes, beans, and paneer cheese are typical ingredients in north Indian curries. Popular non-veg dishes include chicken and mutton curry.
Though silverware can be provided across India, a thali is traditionally consumed with fingers. To eat you mix rice or roti with a fingerfull from the selection of dishes on your plagte, grab a clump with the tips of your fingers, and pop the whole thing in your mouth. Repeat the process and you’ll soon get the hang of it, and before long you’ll be flagging down the waiter for another scoop of rice.
One of the best reasons to order a thali when you sit down at a restaurant in India is the chance to eat a well-rounded meal that includes a little bit of everything. Sure, you could order individual dishes, but a sampler’s platter gives you the opportunity to taste a range of flavors that all complement each other. So when dining in India, the real decision is not what you’ll eat, but rather what type of thali you’ll try? My advice – try them all!