The best way to destroy a culture is to destroy the kitchen, says acclaimed mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik. He’s right. After all, it is only by way of food that parents can ground their child in the culture he/she is born into. When it comes to India, there is no better way to know the country and its varied cultures than to eat a traditional thali. Here are 10 things you should know about our country’s different thalis.
* 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 flavours that were supposed to induce vigour. The same thali would comprise light dishes and subtly flavoured sweets during peace time.
* Some believe that plating is a temple invention — especially the kind of plating seen in the Jagannath Temple in Puri — and other temples down south, where the platter was actually invented to carry the food. Another school of thought credits the arrangement to affluence, since the rich could actually afford to have more than three dishes. But the view that is given much credence is that Ayurveda helped develop the concept of plating and the food pyramid, thanks to its focus on not just how the food tasted, but also how it helped in achieving wellness of the body and soul. Plating in India was also influenced by vaids (royal physicians) and hakims who were employed to evaluate what the king and his men ate on a regular basis. In most royal courts, the vaid would decide not only the level of spice, but also the produce depending on the season.
* Every thali has pickles and chutneys for two reasons — one, to add flavour. Spicy chutneys act as a foil to mild dishes and sweet chutneys do the same to spicy dishes. And two, they aid digestion.
* 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 flavours better and also negate the need to drink water — which is said to impede digestion — during a meal.
* The portion size of a certain dish in an authentic thali, the Kerala banana leaf sadhya for example, 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.
* 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, galavat and guthna/ghotna, to name a few. 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).
* According to Chef Manjit Gill, Corporate Chef ITC Hotels, the concept of dessert didn’t exist in India. Dessert was a practice we borrowed from our colonial rulers. Until then, the last course was either paan or a mukhwas, which was eaten to freshen the breath and also hasten the process of digestion. 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 (later was picked by the Anglo-Indian community and eventually hotels), the meal starts with shukto, a vegetable medley prepared with a bitter vegetable, whose taste is enhanced with the use of sugar and milk.
* The Dastarkhwan served during the time of Akbar and Shah Jahan had extra dishes for the guest of honour. Different bowls were used to showcase dishes prepared by the khansama.
* Most Indian thalis feature fritters. But the inclusion of fritters wasn’t just for the sheer taste — anything fried, say chefs, taste infinitely more delicious — it was also a way 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. Traditional frying essentially works on the principle of fast air cooking — much like the Philips Air Fryer does today, or even better. The idea was to get the oil so hot that it purely evaporates the moisture in the food, and in doing so, cooks it without losing much of the nutrients.
* Usually, 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. Things are slightly different when it comes to the Bengali 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. Hence, the lentil comes first, then the bhaja and the shukto. Of course, unlike other thalis, a Bengali thali is served in courses in which fried fish is served first and usually eaten with rice and dal or with rice mixed with a little ghee. The meal gradually ends with maccher jhol and rice, then a chutney and finally a sweet.