Thali is the Indian name for the platter, which could also refer to an Indian-style meal, made up of a selection of various dishes, served on a platter. It simply refers to a round platter used to serve food. The ‘thali’ style meal serving is popular in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Fiji, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Singapore.
As noted by INTACH, the earliest evidence of use of continuity in cooking and food habits of India can be established by the existence of tandoor (cooking oven), thali, lotas and chakla-belan for making chapatis found in excavations at Indus Valley Civilization site of Kalibangan (3500 BCE – 2500 BCE).
Thali refer to a metal plate that thali meal may be served on. According to Indian food custom, a proper meal should be a perfect balance of all these 6 flavors. The idea behind a Thali is to offer all the 6 different flavors of sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy on one single plate (technically the last two are actually forms of chemesthesis rather than true flavors). Restaurants typically offer a choice of vegetarian or meat-based thalis. Vegetarian thalis are very typical and commonplace in Tamil Nadu canteens (and South India in general), and are a popular lunch choice.
Dishes served in a Thali vary from region to region in South Asia and are usually served in small bowls, called katori. These ‘katoris’ are placed along the edge of the round tray – the actual thali: sometimes a steel tray with multiple compartments is used. Typical dishes include rice, dal, vegetables, roti, papad, curd (yoghurt), small amounts of chutney or pickle, and a sweet dish to top it off. Rice or Roti is the usual main dish which occupies the central portion of the Thali, while the side dishes like vegetable curries and other aforementioned delicacies are lined circularly along the round Thali. Depending on the restaurant or the region, the thali consists of delicacies native to that region. In general, a thali begins with different types of breads such as puris or chapatis (rotis) and different vegetarian specialities (curries). However, in South India, rice is the only staple served with thalis. Thalis are sometimes referred to by the regional characteristic of the dishes they contain. For example, one may encounter Nepalese thali, Rajasthani thali, Gujarati thali and Maharashtrian thali. In many parts of India and Nepal, the bread and the rice portions are not served together in the thali. Typically, the bread is offered first with rice being served afterwards, often in a separate bowl or dish.
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