The earliest thali was obviously made from leaves like banana leaves in South India, called a paatra, derived from the Sanskrit word patra meaning leaf.

Indians take their food seriously and long before dietitians introduced the concept of balanced meals, India managed to incorporate all kinds of items into their dish to make it delicious and satisfying. Thali culture has been ingrained in the food traditions of India since primitive times. It just keeps getting bigger and items change depending on the geographic culture and economy of the place.

History and culture behind the thali system

Unlike the continental or western buffet, Indians believe they are served all at once and a second serving if necessary. Thali culture is the product of several age-old aspects of Indian life, importance of balanced meals, variety of flavors, portion control and aversion to sharing food to limit the spread of common diseases.

The word thali is derived from ‘thaal’, a round tray. The earliest thali was obviously made from leaves like banana leaves in South India, called a paatra, derived from the Sanskrit word patra meaning leaf. Times changed and India shifted from brass, biodegradable containers to plastic, porcelain. For the current generation it is no longer a container but as a regular meal.

Important thalis of India

When Indian became curious about the roots of his dietary habits and made a shift from fast food rejected by health experts, thalis made a comeback. Soon vegetarian Jain thalis without garlic or onions came in Gujarat, Madrasi thalis, North Indian thalis with paneer, chole, saag, daal makhana and choice of bread and rice. Each state began to have its own thali with regional varieties, all on one scale.

Soon, non-veg thalis made a strong debut with Karaikudi-Chettinad recipes from Tamil Nadu. Also delicacies from Mopla Muslims and Syrian Christians in Kerala gained his loyal clientele. East and West Bengal delicacies were popularized by thalis introduced by restaurants like ‘Oh Calcutta’ and ‘6 Ballygunj Place’.

Most regional thalis have the use of clarified butter or ghee which is believed to have medicinal properties and help digest food and build immunity before being immersed in the rich aroma of the dishes. Desserts came to India late, so a piece of jaggery or nuts is added to avoid overeating.

The range to choose from is mind boggling, sometimes they are all offered in one place and the pocket squeeze can be from twenty dollars to Rs 20,000 or even more.

Evolution of custom thalis from kiosks to fine dining

The kiosks along the road sell set thali or puri sabzi. A medium priced eatery will give you paratha, jeera rice, paneer, dal and condiments like anchar, raita. There are also reasonable options like kadhi chawal, chole chawal, rajma chawal.

On the other hand, there are high end places, five star restaurants such as the Taj group which introduce Delux thali with a curated array of delicacies, some regional, some especially for the chef. The price can go up to Rs 7,500 and sometimes they go up to Rs 15,000 plus taxes and are served in silverware cutlery or gold platter.

What a thali offers besides the food is that the dinner offers the opportunity to compose its own symphony of flavors and arrange the order as you wish. The katoris reflects the culture and tradition of the place, the herbs and spices used there. Some items are hot and bland, others are room temperature. Some are richly seasoned.

As Thalis continues to evolve with chefs adding taste buds tantalizing multi-sensory delights, this trend will impact the preparation and presentation of food, taking us back to our roots.

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