Serving a Vegetarian Indian Thali for Dinner
If your family enjoys South Asian food, then they will welcome the trappings of a traditional Indian thali. The word refers to the stainless steel plate the meal is served on. In a restaurant, your thali might arrive with a number of stainless steel bowls, called katoris, loaded with items that allow you to savour a variety of flavours and textures in a single meal. The number of items served depends on the region in India. For your home thali, you can serve most items on the plate directly, and limit katoris for liquid items only.
My heritage is Gujarati, and this blog will help you create a vegetarian thali we typically serve at home. The basic version constitutes a standard meal and we enhance it with “extras” for a treat, or when we entertain.
DBSR – The Basic Gujarati Thali
Mentions of a DBSR dinner will either bring a chorus of joy or groans of despair in a Gujarati household, depending on how often it is served up during the week. It is short for the four components of a basic Gujarati thali: Daar, Bhaat, Shaak and Rotli, explained below.
Daar or (Daal in Hindi) is also called kathod in Gujarati. It brings protein to your thali and is made with pulses, the edible seeds of legumes. Examples include split peas, beans and chickpeas. Daar usually takes the longest to cook if you plan to do so from scratch because many pulses require overnight soaking or pressure cooking. To save time, consider one of our heat and eat stews to fill the spot. All four items contain a pulse or lentil and they come in a variety of flavours and heat levels, from mild to spicy.
Our most popular product is the Chickpea curry (also called channa masala or Chhole), in the red jar. However, no Gujarati thali could be complete without Pigeon pea lentils (Toor-Daal, in Hindi). These are the easiest lentils to cook with. Our lentil spinach curry is made with pigeon peas, and our recipe includes a healthy measure of spinach.
Bhaat, the Gujarati word for rice, pairs amazingly well with any lentil dish. This combination, called Daal Chaawal, can offer the same quality of protein as meat. Babies, toddlers and young kids grow up eating this as a staple and it represents comfort food for many South Asians. A hot bowl can easily satisfy a hungry belly, and for a fraction of the cost of a meat dish.
South Asians prefer Basmati rice, with its rich, earthy fragrance. However, any variety of rice will do for your thali. Here is our blog on how to cook rice, perfectly.
Shaak refers to the main vegetable curry in your thali. Here, you have a wide choice to pick from, and you can work with seasonally available produce. This simple recipe by the famous South Asian chef, Tarla Dalal, provides instructions for making Bhinda nu Shaak, (curry of Okra), a perennial favourite in Gujarati thalis.
Almost all shaak recipes start out with tempering oil with mustard and cumin seeds, along with asafoetida powder, and then caramelizing onions and garlic before you add the vegetable and spices. Bhinda nu Shaak is dry, but curries also feature tomato-based or coconut-based gravies, added after the vegetables cook through. Garnish the shaak with fresh cilantro leaves for presentation, just before serving.
Flatbreads round out your thali. The basic Gujarati thali would include the simplest version, rotli, made with unleavened whole wheat dough. This video demonstrates how easily you can make rotlis from scratch. However, the technique requires practice to perfect. If you lack the patience, then you can also serve Naan and Parathas, readily available from the frozen section of grocery stores.
A special treat served occasionally in place of rotli is Puri, a fried puffed bread, that goes amazingly well with chickpea curry.
Enhancing the Basic Thali
A savvy cook will enhance the basic thali from time to time, to overcome family grumblings, by adding treats like Farsaan and Mishtaan. And if you are preparing a thali for entertaining, then these add-ons become a must. Indeed, the matriarchal Gujarati auntie will spare no effort in judging the chef by the quality and complexity of these two items.
Farsaan is a savoury appetizer. You may recognize samosas and pakoras as common farsaans served in restaurant thalis, with a variety of chutneys, like tamarind sauce. They are often deep-fried, and the most effort-intensive dish on the plate. Farsaans are usually prepared in bulk and in advance if you make them from scratch. They freeze easily and many can be reheated in the oven when you need them.
Over the years, South Asian food entrepreneurs successfully scaled up farsaan recipes for commercial production in mass quantities. It’s therefore, not difficult to find a wide selection in the frozen section of grocery stores.
In contrast to fried farsaans, Gujaratis pride themselves on steamed and baked dishes, like handwo, patra and dhoklas. Some are not easy to freeze and reheat. Here is a recipe for a beloved icon of the Gujarati thali, Khaman Dhokla, best described as a savoury sponge cake! It is relatively easy to make in a steamer or microwave and can be prepared instantly.
A formal thali always includes Mishtaan, the sweet dish. Wedding meals actually begin with a morsel of mishtaan to bless the occasion. Retailers specializing in South Asian groceries commonly carry sweets like Penda, Bundi, Ladwa and Halwa. But if you are inclined to make your thali dessert at home, I recommend Gulab Jamun. They are soft, round balls, similar to Canadian tidbits, made from milk-powder and baking flour, soaked in syrup.
Accessorizing Your Thali
You can take the quality of your thali up a notch up with a few essential items that add satisfying crunchy textures and bursts of contrasting flavour to the offering.
In our home, a thali always includes a small salad. In the summer, we go for a variety of Cachumber recipes, made up of finely diced and spiced up crunchy vegetables. And in the winter months, we switch to a “warm” stir fry called Sambharo, made with julienne-cut cabbage and carrots, pan-seared in hot oil, previously tempered with mustard seeds, and flavoured with a variety of spices.
Also called poppadom in Hindi, this is a large crispy wafer made from lentils. It is loved for the satisfying crunch it brings to the thali. Your South Asian grocer will carry a variety of flavours that will keep in your pantry for a long time and they take seconds to cook on a stovetop.
Adventurous foodies will enjoy a spoonful of athanu, spicy pickled condiments, in their thali. Commonly made from raw green mangos, this adds a tangy and spicy profile to your thali. Like papadom, you can easily pick up a jar at your South Asian grocer, however, here is a recipe if you wish to make it yourself.
This is the yogurt component that will provide a contrasting cooling sensation to your palate. You will find many recipes for Raita online, however, my favourite Gujarati recipe is Boondi Raita, which includes crispy, fried, chickpea droplets in the yogurt. It requires more effort compared to regular raita, but trust me, it’s worth it!
Make it a Thali Night
Your Gujarati thali will require you to plan in advance and stock up your pantry and fridge. However, once you have it all in place, it comes together quite easily.
D.B.S.R. is a good way to get started, and you can make an event of it by getting the kids involved in making Rotli dough and rolling them out. Much of the thali can be “assembled” if you do not want to cook from scratch; the items are readily available in the South Asian section of your grocery store, or at one that specializes in groceries from India.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a dramatic and screeching halt. But I’d like to see the kitchen and home cooking emerge as a silver lining of this historically bleak event. I hope this blog makes it easy for food lovers to make and enjoy vegetarian Gujerati thalis in your home.