The word “thali” translates from Hindi as “‘platter,” which is quite self-descriptive: a thali is a large metal plate used to serve several bowls containing various dishes. In ancient times, a thali was served on banana leaves, and today this tradition survives in some regions of India. As a meal, it is generally eaten for lunch at midday, but is also served at weddings. The only real difference is the number of dishes a thali contains: an everyday thali is made up of 3-5 dishes, while at a celebration it may be as many as 25. In India, thali is most typically eaten by hand, with rice with all kinds of sauces placed in the middle of the platter. The meal is very nutritious, and an Indian saying says that: “Men eat thali to be strong, and women eat it to be fat and beautiful.”
Thali is popular all over India. It always includes rice and several kinds of traditional flatbreads – the most common being chapatis and naan baked in a tandoor, a special oven. The number of side dishes differs greatly in different regions: in the south of India, for example, more vegetable dishes are served, while in the north, meat (mostly lamb) is more popular. In the west of the country, there is a great variety of fish and seafood. More often than not however, thalis are vegetarian, as the majority of Indians consume dairy but not meat or fish. Some side dishes occur in practically every thali. In Life of Pi, we serve three of the most popular vegetarian side dishes: dhal, palak paneer, and veg korma.
Dhal is a wonderful pureed soup made out of boiled beans. It is nutritious, spicy and very fragrant. There are lots of varieties of dhal: green dhal out of green grams, moong dhal out of lentils and ginger, dhal makhani out of kidney beans and black beans. In our restaurant, we serve the latter. It is very easy to make, although it takes quite a long time to prepare because legumes require soaking for about eight hours or a very long cooking time. It's a soup that can be found in any Indian café or restaurant. It is served everywhere every day – on weekdays and on holidays.
Now, there’s palak paneer. Paneer is homemade Indian cheese with a low fat content, a rather bland taste, and a mushy texture. It is great at absorbing various tastes and smells, so it is normally served in a thick sauce (tomato or cream, tomato and nuts) or – as in palak paneer – in a spinach sauce (‘palak’ is Hindi for spinach). To make this delicious and very mild dish, you need to blend spinach – or even better, ghee – and then fry it in butter and spices. Instead of paneer, you can also use tofu or Adygei cheese. Cut the cheese into cubes and mix into the sauce. Palak paneer is often served as an independent dish with flatbreads, but it is also good as a side dish, for example, with tandoori chicken.
Our thali also includes veg korma. It is a mix of vegetables in cashew and cream sauce, and you can use all sorts of vegetables: whatever is in season or whatever you happen to have at hand. For our veg korma, we use broccoli, cauliflower, beans, mushrooms, and green peas. We stew the vegetables in cream, with cashews, spices and chopped masala mixed in. You can buy chopped masala in a store or make it yourself: just cut up tomatoes, onions, ginger and garlic and fry them in a frying pan.
We’ve also added two meat dishes to our otherwise traditional thali. They are murgh makhani and keima matar, from the north of India. Murgh makhani is tender chicken meat in cream, tomato and cashew sauce. This dish is not very hot, although it includes quite a few spices and herbs. Keima matar is made out of minced mutton and green peas (“matar” translates as “peas”), ginger and herbs in a thick tomato sauce. We also added a greens and avocado salad to our thali. This food is not at all common in India, but we are not a strictly authentic Indian restaurant. The salad brings down the spiciness of the rest of the thali.
Author: Olga Astakhova
Photographer: Sergey Leontyev, Life of Pi Restaurant