Thali: Understanding the System behind Indian Cooking

Understanding the system behind traditional Indian cooking.

Just as european or western meals are served in courses with its own eloborate rituals and ceremonies including unwritten rules for serving and eating the meal, the Indian cuisine with ancient roots in the science of Ayurveda has its own unique approach to food.

What is a Thali?

A Thali is a round stainless steel plate used in India and many other countries of south Asia. On festive occasions one may also use the Thali made of finer and heavier metals such as copper, silver or even gold. These may also be ornate and add to the pomp and splendour of a lavish indian meal. No Thali is complete without the small round "katoris" or little bowls made of the same metal.

While the word Thali describes the plate the food is eaten in, it also describes the system of Indian meals. To most non-Indians, Indian food is spicy and hot and is generally "curry" and rice. To most Indians, regular Indian food that is eaten at home is the thali. And it is generally served in a thali.

Composition of a Thali

The Thali, a complete meal is often a vegetarian meal and provides one with all the different foods that a person needs, in varying proportions. A vegetarian thali is a complete meal and provides a balanced diet.

Dal and Beans: Lentils such as Moong or other lentils are called Dals. A variety of beans are also available in the Indian cuisine and often different beans are mixed to prepare a wholesome protein substitute for animal products. This is generally served in the little round bowl called a "katori" in north Indiia.

Breads: Breads are generally made of whole wheat, such as  Chappati, Paratha, Breads are also made out of white wheat flour, such as Nan and Puri. Breads are also made of other grains, such as millet flour such as Bajra roti and Jowar bhakri, or even corn flour. 

There is an amazing variety of indian breads available, some plain, others spicy or stuffed with vegetables. Making Indian breads requires skill and practice, though it may look easy. These breads are also healthy since they are made with a few basic ingredients such as wheat and water and are relatively fast to make since they do not contain yeast. Such unleavened bread is also easy to digest.

Rice: While breads, made of wheat, millet or corn and served as a "first course" along with dals and vegetables, rice on the other hand is often served as a "second course" to be eaten generally with dals but also occasionally with vegetables. Some rice dishes are a complete meal by itself, such as khichidi, pulao or biryani. Rice can be served plain, spiced or fried. Rice cooked with milk and spices is a favourite sweet among children.

Vegetables: In a tropical country such as India, nature has provided for a lavish spread of vegetables. These are seasonally prepared with various spices and served dry or in a gravy. While there are specialities, each family has its own version of the recipe allowing for individual expression and creativity! Traditional Indian cooking an art since each dish requires spices that are specially mixed for it. The concept of "curries" or Indian curry spice is completely unknown in India!

Milk Products: Joghurt, Raita, Lassi are the main milk products that are served along with the Thali. Milk is rarely served and if it is served then it is prepared with spices to reduce its "kapha" or mucus producing tendency. In northen India milk products are more common, but in south India, milk products are not as common and served in diluted form with spices that neutralize its "kapha" producing effect.

Side Dishes: There are a variety of side dishes and snacks that are not necessarily served in every Thali, but add to the richness of the cuisine. Chutneys, Papads, salads are the most popular besides other savouries such as samosas and pakoras.

Sweets: Sweets are often eaten as part of the entire Thali, as opposed to at the end of a meal as a dessert. This relates to an important concept in Ayurveda to provide the palate with all contrasting tastes and a rich sensory experience. Indian sweets are generally made of milk boiled slowly over a period of time or grains and vegetable cooked in ghee.

Thali: Meeting of Science and Culture

Careful study would show that the basic composition of the Thali corresponds to that of the food pyramid. The food pyramid is a "relatively" new and the result of research in the fields of nutrition. The Thali on the other hand is an ancient cultural tradition, part of the Hindu socio-geographical landscape since thousands of years.

While it is not clear when the Thali took its current form, it clearly emerged from detailed studies of food and its effects on sadhana (yoga practice) during the Vedic times. It was, in all probabilities, refined in to its current form, by the science of Ayurveda. The beauty of the Thali is that this scientific approach to nutrition is completely a part of the culture.