What To Know About Thali, A Delicious Staple Of Indian Restaurants

If you enjoy Indian cuisine, you may have come across the term "thali" on restaurant menus, and it got you wondering: Is it a specific dish, a cooking technique, or something else? It turns out that's the right question, as it can mean a few things. The word thali refers to a large circular plate (often with raised edges) that holds several small bowls filled with various foods. The food historian K.T. Achaya wrote about thalis in his book "A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food," in which he explained that thalis originated in northern India before their use became a widespread custom throughout the country. Achaya says, etymologically, the term came from the word "sthali," which refers to a pot to boil rice. 

Though it refers to the plate as well, the term can also mean the Indian custom of eating all the courses at once in order to mix and match flavors to your exact preference rather than have different dishes come out separately (as Americans are used to). Additionally, it's a common fixture at large get-togethers or celebrations, such as festivals or weddings. The exact variation of a thali may differ depending on the occasion. So for those curious or who want to try their hand at preparing one at home, what does a thali usually consist of?

A thali consists of a mix of different types of food

Typically, a thali will include a grain, such as rice or flatbread, a lentil, such as dal (a side dish typically made of lentils) or sambar (a stew made of lentils), seasonal vegetables, a condiment, typically chutney or pickles, raita (a yogurt-based condiment), and/or papadum (a savory deep-fried dish usually made of rice or lentils). With such a variation of foods, just about every type of taste is covered — from sweet to sour to tart and beyond. Eaten together as intended, the entire palate is satisfied. 

Thalis also vary by region; while many of the coastal parts of India include some type of seafood, others in the mainland area will either keep it all vegetarian or add meats like chicken. And though not mandatory, other thalis include a type of curry. The dessert served in a thali, again, if it has one, can range from things such as doodhpak (rice pudding) and jalebi (Indian-style funnel cake). A thali is completely customizable, in other words, perfect for enjoying your favorite Indian dishes all on one plate.