Friday, August 20, 2010

The Indian Thali love-affair

Almost everyone knows the trouble in trying to maintain ones' girth size, let alone reduce it. Two of my recent acquisitions, an inch-tape and electronic weighing machine, both of which I use several times a week, show I've become a victim of this predicament too. I've also bought myself running shoes, track-pants, a swimming cap & swimming goggles; which I've looked at often but used very infrequently over the last few months. But, you have to credit the intent. One change that this consciousness about my growing rotundity has brought about is that my favourite food pleasures have got a temporary axe. Chocolates, for one, which I have fought to take the larger share of (from my siblings in my childhood), are now consumed in quarter-parts with several partly-finished ones lining my refrigerator shelf.

Another outdoor culinary favourite for  me is the Indian thali (also called, rice-plate, taat or meals), and I've had to limit my indulgence in the recent past as I tend to overeat when the servings have a wide-variety and are unlimited in quantity. In my initial years in Mumbai, I had survived on the rice-plate, and it was available in almost every small restaurant, the kind which I frequented. The inablity of being able to actively participate in the food about to be consumed,and yet getting a mix of some favourite food on your plate as also some not-so-favourite ones, always gave me a feeling that I was home.

Eating the thali can only be described as an experience. Each place, not only gives you a taste of the cuisine, but also of the culture and the people (especially the guests), leaving you with a feeling like visiting a relative from your native place after a very long time. What is common among all the thali places is that they are all uniquely Indian; all giving a similar flavour of the 'athithi' feeling.

There are several popular Thalis  that have been much written about and I'm just listing the ones that are top on my list. Mumbai has some places which only serve thalis, like Matunga's Rama Naik (where South Indian food is served on a plantain leaf).  There is Status (Regent Chambers, Nariman Point) & Samrat (Prem Court, Churchgate) both of which serve a sumptuous Gujarati fare. The Rajasthani culinary spread & hospitality is expressed very well at Rajdhani (Palladium, Pheonix Mills). The Ghazali fish thali (Phoenix Mills) is really delectable and this is one of the places where my current resolution about not eating thalis succumbs.

A few Five Star Hotels also serve this middle-class staple, but the penchant for experimentation by Chef's often brings some mish-mash of non-authentic dishes on the plate. While the Konkani spread at Konkan Cafe (Taj President, Cuffe Parade) just about passes muster, the  Tamilian thali at Vindhyas (Orchid Hotel, Near Airport) is among the better ones in these high-cost, hi-flying places.

Cholayil Ayurvedic meals
In other cities there are several ones that I've tried and loved. In Hyderabad, the Southern Spice Andhra thali is among the best in the city, though Chutney's (Banjara Hills) does not really come up wiith top numbers in this category (though it is quite a wonderful place for all a la carte South Indian stuff). My favourites in Chennai are Cholayil Sanjeevanam (which serves authentic Ayurvedic food which you're supposed to also eat in a particular prescribed order) and the Saravana Bhavan full-meals. Surprisingly though, none of the bigger hotel-restaurants, including the Taj chain or the GRT Hotels, meet the expectation on South Indian meals.

One such tangy recipe, the Tamarind Aloo, which I gathered from these southern thali splurges is given below. Writing this has been tough on my carb-deficient brain, but my conscience will unfortunately not allow me to go thali-binging till I am able to put some stop on my horizontal expansion.

Tamarind Aloo

Main Ingredients

- Two large potatoes (cut in small squares)
- Two medium onions (chopped fine)
- Six to seven Garlic pods (chopped fine or paste)
- One index finger length peeled Ginger (chopped fine or paste)
- One tomato (chopped fine)

Other ingredients

- Cummin seeds - half teaspoon
- Mustard seeds - half teaspoon
- Green chilli - One (chopped fine)
- Eight or nine Curry leaves
- Salt to taste
- Red chilli power
- Turmeric powder half teaspoon
- Tamirind juice extracted from small lime sized tamirind ball
- Refined oil - 2 table spoons


- Sputter mustard seeds in oil
- Add curry leaves
- Add cummin seeds (jeera) and saute
- Add chopped onion and fry well till brown
- Add cut potatoes and fry till well done and a little brown
- Add tomatoes and add salt, turmeric and chilli
- Fry till till half done
- Add taminrind juice and simmer till lid for 10-12 minutes

Serve as a gravy dish or dry (to dry keep lid open while placed on simmer) with rice or breads/chapatti.

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