When traveling in most regions of India, you’ll find local restaurants serving thali — a platter offering the choicest dishes specific to that region.
But thali is much more than just a part of the country’s dining out culture.
While not representative of how all people eat in India, it’s an integral part of festivals, celebrations, and everyday eating.
Let me take you on a journey to discover thali and learn about its significance within the Indian dietary tradition, including some of the regional variants. In the end, I’ll share a guide for creating your own thali with a recipe from Kerala, a state in South India.
Interestingly, thali is a Hindi word for plate.
A thali is usually accompanied by small round bowls called katoris, though there are also thalis made with built-in compartments for different dishes, much like a bento box.
In his book “The Story of Our Food,” K. T. Achaya writes that in prehistoric India, food was eaten on disposable plates made of leaves, such as a large banana leaf, stitched-together dried banyan leaves, or leaves from palas trees. Even the katoris were made of leaves.
Banana leaves are still prevalent in South India, especially in temples and at wedding feasts, while palas leaves are more common in North and Central India.
As for the food it contains, a thali is a complete meal consisting of 10 or more dishes, depending on which part of India you’re in.
Thalis come in several varieties depending on the specific location.
A Gujarati thali, which comes from the state of Gujarat in Western India, is one of the most elaborate thalis. It includes several fried snacks, flatbreads, a variety of vegetable preparations cooked in ghee, and sweets.
Thali is also not necessarily only vegetarian.
In the coastal regions of India, for example, you’ll find variations of fish and seafood thali. Kolhapur, a city in the state of Maharashtra in Western India, is famous for its various spicy mutton thali preparations and flavorful broths.
The meal is always very wholesome, even though its complexity and quantity of dishes can vary.
As well as being a part of daily life, thali is steeped in tradition.
At Udupi Shri Krishna Matha, a thirteenth-century temple in the town of Udupi in South India, the prasad — the religious offering at temples — is served in the form of a meal.
Rows of people sit cross-legged on the floor, round plates placed in front of them, with servers carrying buckets of rice, sambar (lentil stew), dry vegetable preparation, and chutney, serving everything on the same plate.
The meal is followed by payasam, a sweet pudding made with rice and coconut milk.
This is one of the simplest forms of thali in India. The meal gets grander and richer if there’s a celebration — especially for weddings, at which this form of serving and eating is popular.
Yet, celebrations are not the only time when thali is served. It’s also an important part of funeral rituals in Uttar Pradesh, a state in North India.
This ritual thali is served to Brahmin Hindu priests on the 13th day of the mourning period and consists of potato curry, dried pumpkin, raita, poori (deep-fried Indian bread), pickles, and papadum, followed by kheer, a sweet dish of rice cooked in milk.
From a nutritional point of view, Indian thali is a balanced meal providing carbs, protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Dairy, which also plays an important role in Indian cuisine, is used in the form of ghee, curds, or buttermilk.
“The combination of one grain, one lentil, some vegetables, sour chutney, raita, or pickle, some tadka (tempering), plus using ghee and spices, make the Indian thali wholesome,” says food and nutrition consultant Sangeeta Khanna.
“While the grain and lentil combination is considered to provide complete proteins necessary for survival, good health, and immunity, the presence of all six tastes in Indian meals makes it the most nourishing,” she adds.
The concept of six tastes, or shad rasa, is central to Ayurveda, an ancient Indian healing practice. It can be categorized as follows:
In Ayurveda, “the presence of all six is crucial for a nutritious diet. Each taste, when had in a particular order (sweet first, astringent last), aids the process of digestion,” explains Amrita Rana, a trained Ayurveda nutritionist and chef.
She adds that certain foods have multiple tastes, like amla (Indian gooseberry), which is both sour and salty.
Apart from the six tastes, different textures are integral to thali, such as soft khichdi and crunchy papadum.
Various cooking techniques like steaming, poaching, shallow frying, roasting, grilling, deep frying, parching, and dry roasting are used in Indian cooking, and most of them are employed when composing a thali.
The Kerala Sadya is a traditional meal cooked and served during Onam, an annual Hindu harvest festival celebrated in the state of Kerala in South India, as well as on other auspicious occasions.
Served on a banana leaf, the meal consists of over 20 dishes. However, the everyday meal is simpler and has fewer components.
Chef Marina Balakrishnan, founder of Ootupura, a plant-based meal delivery service in Mumbai, shares her guide to making a Keralite (Kerala-style) thali.
Here are the components:
- Red rice. Generally, unrefined and unpolished Palakkadan matta rice is used. Local rice varieties like kuruva and thondi are common, too.
- Sambar. Kerala sambar is the main dish in a Keralite thali. Sambar is cooked with lentils, numerous veggies, and sambar powder — a blend of different spices that’s usually homemade.
- Roasted, blended coconut can also be added for body and texture.
- Sambar is tempered with coconut oil, mustard seeds, and curry leaves to enhance the flavor.
- Avial. Delicate and subtle, avial is packed with vegetables like yam, drumstick (bean-like veggies), carrots, long beans, banana, and pumpkin. It’s cooked in a base of curds and coconut milk, with a dash of coconut oil.
- Pullisherry. This sour, yogurt-based dish is often made with one vegetable like pumpkin, banana, or even ripe mango when in season. Freshly grated coconut gives the dish some texture.
- Thoran. This vegetable preparation is made by stir-frying seasonal veggies like cabbage, beans, carrot, or ash gourd in coconut oil. It’s tempered with mustard oil and curry leaves and finished with freshly grated coconut.
- Chammandi. This coarse chutney is made with freshly grated coconut, raw mangoes or tamarind, curry leaves, dry red chilies, and a dash of freshly milled coconut oil.
- Sambaram. Spiced buttermilk is a huge part of Keralite cuisine, especially during summer. The buttermilk is infused with green chilies or pepper, crushed shallots, ginger, and curry leaves, which are sieved out before serving.
- Payasam. This isn’t a daily dish, but it’s not uncommon for Keralites to make payasam once or twice a week. Rice, wheat, or millet is cooked in coconut milk and jaggery, and cardamom and cashews are added to enhance flavor.
- Accompaniments. A range of fried foods like banana chips and papadum, along with pickles, form an essential part of the meal, adding flavor and crunchiness.
Together, these dishes comprise a nourishing and tasty thali.
Thali, in its most elaborate form, is a wholesome dish that’s also a feast for your eyes, with its array of colors and bright bowls for each food.
It’s a quintessential eating experience in India, whether as part of a cultural tradition or everyday life.
Shirin Mehrotra is an independent journalist who writes about the intersection of food, travel, and culture. She is currently pursuing an MA in the Anthropology of Food.