I love the diversity of San Franciscans I get to serve. I feed all kinds of diners, from the Indian grandmother looking for a taste of home to the adventurous newcomer who has never eaten an Indian meal before in their entire life. As with any cuisine, those new to the foods of India may feel overwhelmed by the many unfamiliar choices. You may be tempted to say “I’ll have one of each!” or worry about whether you’re guaranteed to love the one item you select. In such cases, your best bet is to try several—and there’s a special Indian dish that serves this purpose perfectly: South Indian Thali. This is the ultimate Indian sampler plate that not only lets you experience multiple flavors in small portions, but also lets you try a traditional way of eating Indian food.
The Origins of Thali
In rural India, a religious festival always includes a bandhara, a free sumptuous feast. Dozens or even hundreds of guests sit in long rows with large banana leaf plates before them. Servers carrying buckets of food make their way up and down the rows. First, a mound of rice is placed in the center of your plate. Next, a cupful of dry veggies—like aloo gobi—are placed beside it. Clay or metal cups may be distributed and filled with various spicy and saucy dishes. Hot pickled mango, sweet tamarind chutney, and cooling dahi (yoghurt) follow. There is a wonderful drama as each new server surprises you with another dish. Hot puris or chapatis are dropped beside the rice, and, finally, the sweets are distributed to complete the experience.
This type of endless feast became the basis for thali. Instead of a banana leaf, restaurants in India also use a large round silver tray, as big as a hubcap (thali actually means “plate” or “tray”). The thali holds a central heap of fragrant basmati rice, and surrounding the rice is a ring of around ten metal cups, each filled with a different dish. You get to try many flavors in different orders, or even combine them.
The Art of Eating Thali
Remember that big mound of rice in the middle? Well, that will form the heart of your dining experience. You separate a portion of rice from the pile and choose a dish to pour over the rice. To enjoy thali traditionally, use only your right hand to mix the items and eat them elegantly with your first two fingers and thumb. Using your fingers to eat the foods gives you the opportunity to touch as well as taste—thali is a hands-on experience!
While half of the pleasure of thali is picking and choosing your favorites (and fighting with your family over who gets to finish which dish), this is my suggested order for exploring the dishes you’ll get with thali.
First, the Dry Veggies
Start with whatever dry veggies (such as the dry vegetable poriyal) that your particular thali offers—they will give you a taste of exotic spice combinations. Mix them with a bit of rice, and the bland and nutty flavor of the rice will provide a “blank canvas” for the spice combinations to paint on top of. When you try another main dish—like the chicken or seasonal korma, which can vary from region to region—you’ll taste a completely different spice combination. Again, mix this with rice (are you sensing a theme?). Taste the rich, soothing coconut and cashew sauce and the sweet fruits and nuts hiding among the vegetables. Or, if your thali includes the Tamil lamb, this is the time to sample that. There is no incorrect way to do this! Just experiment with the flavors and ultimately do whatever suits your palatte.
Next on Your Plate: Spicy, Spicier, and Spiciest
Now, follow these with the spicy sambar. This is a hot dal soup flavored with tamarind. Traditionally, you can eat this with idli, a slightly sour fermented rice dumpling. The idli is soothing but flavorful and the sambar has a hot aftertaste from green chilis and hing (asafetida). Ready for more heat? Try the pungent kozhambu, again with rice.Taste the vegetables—pumpkin, plantain, or okra may be hiding in this dish—and also note the bitter, astringent flavor of methi or fenugreek seed. One more dish—rasam! This is a deliciously sour tomato soup with tamarind, black pepper, and more than a dozen other ingredients. As before, you can mix the rasam with rice.
Cool Off With Curd
At this point, your mouth may be on fire, so it’s time for the raita, curd, or dahi, a yoghurt-based dish that will cool things down. If there is roti or uttapam on your tray, you can tear off bits and use it like a spoon to take additional bites of the various sauces. Alternatively, try some crunchy papadum to change up the texture. Bits of Aachar (lime or mango pickle) can be dabbed into your mouth with the papadum.
Repeat the above cycle. If there are other dishes you haven’t tried yet, now is the time. Little tastes will let you decide what you love and what you just find interesting. Save the sweet payasam (rice swimming in sweetened milk) for dessert.
Providing a Roadmap for Future Experiences
You’ve now had a huge sampling of many types of dishes that South Indian cuisine offers. Make sure you’ve asked about and noted the names of some of your favorites so you can order them individually for larger portions on your return trips.
Look no further than our brunch menu for a chance to try out the art of eating thali. Just as the hands-on experience is important to incorporate your sense of touch, at DOSA, we are committed to appealing to all of your senses. Stop by one of our two San Francisco locations—either in Valencia or Fillmore—and experience the colors, flavors, scents, and sounds of the ultimate urban Indian dining experience.