While Rajasthan and Gujarat have successfully put thalis on the map (both in India and around the world), during our years of travel, we’ve tried many, many more. It’s a great way to sample regional cuisine without having to order 20 dishes.
From the more famous south Indian thalis that change every few hundred kilometres, to lesser known ones in Kutch, Madhya Pradesh and the North East. Here are some of our favourites.
Local cuisine is hard to come by in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region outside of people’s homes, so when we had a chance to sample a traditional Kumaoni thali at the Grand Oak, we jumped at the chance. Wild greens are a major part of the cuisine, and we discovered that the nasty stinging nettles (make you itch for days if you touch it) are delicious when cooked. In the thali they were served as pakodas with a chutney made with the seeds of the marijuana plant, along with gahad or horse gram lentil (rich in iron) with no cholesterol or fat, lamb that had a slight spice to it, yogurt with mustard, potatoes and mixed grain rotis. While many things on the plate looked familiar it tasted like nothing we’d had before, and combined with the crisp clean mountain air the meal was sublime.
Note: Best eaten at lunch and followed up with a nap in the gardens.
Where to go: The Grand Oak Manor in Binsar offers an excellent Kumaoni thali, served on the family’s traditional silver thals, with a side of Himalayan views.
Traditionally, the sweet dish was always served first, to hold you till the food was served.
While the concept of traditional ‘Indian’ style thalis hasn’t quite reached Nagaland, they do have set meals that are somewhat staple across the state. While each tribe has its own distinct flavours, from using black sesame paste to smoking meats or simply boiling vegetables with one deadly Naga chili for flavour, there are some similarities across the state. Boiled vegetables including squash, cabbage, okra and wild greens are usually part of every meal along with red rice, yellow lentils and meat. The meat – the highlight of the meal – ranges from pork, chicken, fish or beef can be served smoked or fermented with yam leaves, boiled with bamboo shoots, a gravy with sesame; and sometimes the protein is fried (fish). The paucity of oil ensures that the flavours of the meats and vegetables come through and the meals are packed with flavour.
Where to go: Where’s The Food in Kohima offers great authentic Naga dishes, its location, overlooking the hilly town is a happy bonus.
Driving down the Konkan coast in Maharashtra meant that we had to stop and eat at the typical khanavals, local eateries that used to be run out of homes and serve set thali meals. A fish thali is the most common, and includes a side of rice, the ubiquitous Maharashtrian sol kadi, varan dal and rotis (a choice of wheat and local bhakri rotis made with rice flour is regular). We found the bhakri rotis to be ideal for the more masala-ey dishes. While surmai is the most common fish, usually fried and served with a thick coconut gravy that embodies the flavour of the Konkan, many eateries along the coast will offer an enormous variety of seafood, including rawas, pomfret, crab, kalava (grouper), lobster and many others. Many eateries like the popular Patil Khanaval in Murud, have outgrown their humble beginnings, and menus have expanded to include mutton and chicken thalis.
That said, we suggest a fish thali with a side of rava fried prawns, it’s simply sublime!
Where to go: Bhalekar’s Khanawal in Sawantwadi has a wide variety of fish options for your thali, many of which you will not find in other places across the state.
Traditional thalis ensure that you have a balanced meal with sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy tastes and a digestive in a single plate.
I have to admit that I didn’t know this existed before we travelled around the state. It was a happy surprise when I found them though. They are massive and might just beat the Tamilian thali in the number of dishes served! The first vegetarian thali we tried in Bhubaneshwar had 12 base dishes with several add–on options, including meat (though we limited ourselves to the vegetarian ones). Much like Bengali cooking, here too the dishes are cooked with mustard oil and a familiar blend of five spices or panch phutana, but the similarities end there. The base thali comes with dalma, a slightly thick sweetish lentil, sticky rice, a variety of vegetables including potatoes, spinach, pumpkin, gourd and whatever is seasonal; pickles, yogurt, salad, and rotis made with wheat and more vegetables to add on. The highlight of the meal is a crunchy spicy powder made of ground lentils and dry red chillies that is great with plain rice or sprinkled on potatoes or dalma. Potatoes are a big part of the meal and while the whole thing sounds (and felt!) very filling, there’s hardly any oil and the masalas are light – ensuring that you’ll be ready for round two at dinner.
Where to go: You can go nosh on a generous Odia thali at The Odisha Hotel in Bhubaneswar which also offers great non–vegetarian Odiya fare.
Jambughoda Royal Meal
India is no stranger to royalty and the idea of living in a former palace is always thrilling. The experience is elevated at Jambughoda, a tiny former princely state in Gujarat, when you get to share a meal with the royal family, whose erstwhile Maharana is full of stories. Served on the family crockery and silverware embossed with the Jambughoda crest, the food is served in courses. The cuisine is a blend of local tribal flavours with influences from the ancestral home in MP and Gujarati cuisine. The king of the meal is the kalia rezala, a lightly spiced mutton dish also common in Bhopal’s Nawabi cuisine. The rezala was accompanied with urad dal dhebras, potatoes cooked with sesame seeds, corn and bajra rotis and a pulao that serves to elevate all the other dishes. Most of the food is organic, grown in the palace gardens. Guests also have the option of a Durbar thali which has 23 different dishes, served on the royal silver thalis.
Where to go: The Jambughoda Palace is located around 75 km outside of Vadodara, call ahead for reservations.