South Indian Thali are a wonderful way to enjoy a cheap and filling meal which gives you the opportunity to sample loads of different dishes. Most restaurants across India will offer a thali option and often they are available on an endless top-up basis. Although, to be fair, even though the portion sizes of the individual dishes aren’t enormous, the combination of delicious food and rice is guaranteed to fill you up. While we were travelling through South India unlimited thali meals were available for just a couple of dollars. There will always be a choice of veg or non-veg thali. Both are emphatically delicious.
Thali are all about flavours and textures.
The quintessential thali comprises a flat round plate with a heap of rice in the centre surrounded by small bowls containing a variety of sauces, vegetables and curd. There will be a sweet dish in there too. And, of course, a crispy poppadum on top.
If you’re in South India many restaurants won’t have a knife or fork, but there are usually spoons available. If you’re eating with your fingers, make sure you wash your hands first. Every restaurant has a hand-washing area.
Sometimes the South Indian thali will be served on a banana leaf which is a more traditional approach – in a restaurant the waiters will arrive at each table with a vessel and will spoon the various curries onto the leaf. They will return and return – just nod to request another dollop of something delicious.
HOW TO EAT SOUTH INDIAN THALI
Separate a portion of rice and pour the sauce from the dish or place some of the vegetables onto it. Mix it in. Then scoop up with the fingers of your right hand, pop it into your mouth and savour.
There is an order to eating the dishes of the thali, although no one will criticise you if you don’t follow it.
You should start with meat (if you are eating non-veg) and vegetables – both sauced and dry form.
Sambar, a mild lentil and vegetable sauce, comes next. It’s a staple throughout the region, often found at breakfast too – and eaten with idly (a savoury rice cake) or vada (like a savoury doughnut).
Rasam is a thin sauce, almost like a soup, made with tamarind to give a sour note, but spiced up with chilli or black pepper. It is always the last of the sauces to be eaten and it too can be mixed with the rice.
Yoghurt (also known as curd) rounds off the savoury part of the meal. It cools the palette in preparation for the dessert (if there is one).
There is often a sweet dish in one of the bowls – maybe something like rice with jaggery or sweet vermicelli in a milk-based sauce. If the dessert is liquid based, it’s okay to drink it directly from the container. Sometimes you may be given a piece of fruit. And the fruit, locally grown of course, is delicious.
We found that whenever we ate in restaurants the locals were very happy to see us. They were also quite keen to see how we coped with eating using our hands (a little bit messy, to be honest) but they were also happy to guide us about the etiquette. There were a number of occasions when we weren’t really sure in which order to eat the – absolutely delicious – dishes, and were on-hand to offer some friendly guidance, particularly when it came to accidentally eating the sweet dish before the savouries had been guzzled with relish!