Finn In India
Posted on January 13, 2013
Words and Images By Finnian Patrick Topson
An Indian thali is a wonderful thing. A thali can range from very basic, consisting of rice or chappati as a carb base with 2 or 3 curries, to something that puts gastropub plank served wankery to shame. At the more exciting end, there’ll be a full selection of curries, rice, bread, pickles, salad, curd (yoghurt).
Thali basically means ‘plate’ and is present throughout the vast majority of India, served at roadside stalls in Rajasthan and expensive restaurants in Mumbai. I’ve made it a quest of sorts to eat thali as often as possible for a few reasons. This dish is a great representative of the true local cuisine away from all the bastardised Indian and foreign foods served in places frequented by tourists. Thali is also a cheap (think tens of pennies not pounds) way of filling your stomach, with many places offering free refills on rice and sometimes even the curries. So for the stingy backpacker like myself, it’s a pleasure with no monetary guilt associated.
The particular thali in question was served in a small roadside cafe near a small beach in south Goa. Not a truly remote area by Indian standards, but small enough to enjoy peace away from the India of incredible and unceasing sensory headfuck. Word had truly gotten out how lip-smackingly good this place’s food was so it was busy with foreigners and locals alike, the latter mostly looking annoyed that their favourite cafe had become the shrine of dreadlocked hippies of dubious hygiene.
I perused the stained and torn menu briefly before spotting the words ‘Goan fish thali’ and a very fat, very happy Russian man sweating over an almost empty plate. He caught me looking at him, and in between orgasmic mouthfuls said ‘fish thali..very good’, so in true When Harry Met Sally style, I said to the aging 5-foot small woman waiting to take my order ‘I’ll have what he’s having’. It arrived a few minutes later (Indians don’t like to wait for food and in all the best places I’ve eaten, I’ve not waited long for my food to arrive) and I sat back in awe for a moment before tucking in.
All in all, there was a very spicy fish curry which had tomatoes, coconut flesh and flakes of white fish; a mackerel which had been coated in semolina and fried, very simple but full of the beautifully rich flavours mackerel should deliver, and not greasy at all; a dish of sambar, a South Indian staple which delivers a spicy, salty flavour yet at the same time is a complex beast, with curry leaves, mustard seeds and coconut all going in. Sambar is such a staple that if it isn’t tasting good, you should probably put down the rice pot and piss on the tandoor. Black eyed beans with sauce and some simply prepared vegetables kept everything ticking over nicely, and the obligatory dollop of sweet, sour and incredibly spicy lime pickle was on the plate if desired.
A cold beetroot dish of raw cubes with a simple dressing of lime juice and salt was delicious and helped offset the heat coming from the curries. Another cold dish was made up of a leaf similar to spinach, chopped and cooked, spices and what tasted like flecks of deep fried coconut. This was my favourite dish and the first time I’d eaten anything like this before. Such is the beauty of the thali, you often get something you wouldn’t normally see on a menu, a chef’s special if you like. Sometimes they’re tasty and varied, sometimes they’re bland as balls, but a truly great thali is one which includes a local specialty, something you won’t find in any other area.
India’s cuisine is hugely varied, every region has very specific specialities, based on climate, seasonality etc. Good Indian food ticks all the boxes of foodie ideals of eating seasonally, locally and a varied diet, without any of the snobbery and pretension which clouds the Western eating experience. People here eat in this way because it makes sense, logically as well as financially. Part of the problem in the UK is that it’s often cheaper to eat imported food in its many forms of frozen prawns from Thailand, African beef etc, than it is to eat locally or even British produced food.
This being the south, rice is the only carb on this thali, though chapatti’s are always available. The only thing that was missing was some kind of yoghurt dish, served across South Asia to cool the mouth during a spicy meal. An unusual thing not to have, but I ordered a milky masala chai which stood in wonderfully, and sorted my suffering mouth right out after the delicious punishment of fresh chili which is near impossible to avoid. They eat their morning bread with a fresh green chili on the side to chomp bites out of for fucks sake!
It’s difficult to go back to having just one curry with rice of an evening. Food’s just better when there’s more variety to it. So I’ll probably carry on sitting and eating thali’s as often as possible, contemplating why, in a country so enamoured with Indian food in general, I’ve never even seen a thali on a menu in the UK.