“Healthy, locally sourced small plates that focus on seasonal produce” is a phrase one might associate with a man-bun-wearing West Coast chef who peddles farm-to-table menus and green smoothies in mason jars. And yet, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed think-tank Deendayal Research Institute has much the same idea for meeting India’s nutrition needs, only they are calling it “Nanaji thalis”.

The institute will hold a workshop in Shillong on June 23 and June 24 where agriculture ministry officials, nutritionists and social scientists will put together thalis in an effort to solve the country’s food security woes by championing the nutritional values of regional food. This meal will be named after the late Bharatiya Jan Sangh leader and rural self-reliance activist Nanaji Deshmukh.

The Bay Area hipster and the Deendayal Research Institute are hardly the first to recognise that eating locally has a host of nutritional and environmental benefits. Still, these efforts deserve appreciation at a time when industrialisation has made all kinds of regional and seasonal foods available all over the world all year round, all the while racking up a ridiculous carbon footprint (a new restaurant in Mumbai actually boasts about how many miles each of its ingredients travelled before it went into your pizza).

However, despite its seemingly good intentions, the institute’s plan begs the question: is there a need to slap on the name of an RSS member to appropriate a way of eating that has existed without his help for centuries? The thali tradition in South Asia, which predates India itself, has more or less exemplified what it means to be a “locavore” well before the Oxford American Dictionary decided to declare it its word of the year in 2007.

Malwani thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Malwani thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Microcosm on a plate

On a recent trip to Varkala, in western Kerala, I was dismayed to find that most restaurants there were so occupied with catering to the backpacking white tourists that there was more spaghetti on their menus than anything resembling a passable meen moilee. This changed when the owners of the cottage where I was staying asked if I wanted to join them for a thali made by one of the wives. Never one to pass up a meal created by a formidable aunty, I allowed myself to be treated to a variety of tangy pachadis, lightly stir-fried thorans, seasonal vegetables of all hues and textures, fresh green mango pickles and chutneys redolent with local curry leaves, all dotted around a giant mound of fragrant red rice. The meal ended with a small banana from their tree and a bowl of steaming payasam. I folded my banana leaf over and sleepily contemplated moving to Kerala for good, before remembering that a soporific thali is never too far away wherever you may be in the country.

The sheer variety in thalis in India is such that they are hard to categorise into distinct geographical areas. Thalis in Maharashtra, for instance, vary with distance from the sea, the availability of certain kinds of chillies and any number of other local circumstances. Head to Kolhapur, and you’ll find thalis lined with a variety of peppery rassas served alongside mutton or chicken, but step into Pune’s popular Shabree restaurant, and what they call an authentic Maharashtrian thali is completely different – and completely vegetarian.

Chettiar vegetarian thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Chettiar vegetarian thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Travel to the North East and you’ll find no basmati rice on a thali. The staple here comes instead in the black, red, sticky or a dozen other varieties, almost all of which are hard to find in most other parts of the country. Eating thalis in Assam alone is an education in rice varietals – you will come across the short-grained joha rice with its heady fragrance, the glutinous bora rice in sweet dishes, and the micronutrient rich autumn rice ahu and winter rice called sali. All of them are valued for keeping the state’s population with full bellies and farmers with a trade on which to survive.

In West Bengal, thalis are perhaps seen more often in homes than in restaurants. Son-in-laws find occasion for extra pampering on jamai shoshti, for instance, with a thali full of fried snacks, pulao, luchis, fish and mutton. Move northwards and rotis or parathas rise to a more central role in thalis, while in Rajasthan, thalis feature curries made using foraged desert shrubs. The enterprising Gujaratis, of course, have made multinational businesses out of their unlimited thali meals.

Gujarati thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Gujarati thali. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Let them eat thali

The flip side of this glorious tradition is that thali meals and the way they are organised have almost always been markers of class, caste and privilege. It is hard to separate the ritual values of purity and pollution from any conversation about Indian food and thalis are no different.

Archaeologist and historical anthropologist Kathleen Morrison notes how stone thalis, some round and others shaped like banana leaves, were unearthed from ruins of temples and elite city precincts in South India dating as far back as the 10th century CE. The raised rims of these thalis, she says, indicated that the meals they contained comprised a central portion of rice with semi-liquid contents around it. She uses this picture to further make the argument that as far back as the Middle Ages, rice was considered a food of “both the elite and the divine”, while other grains such as millets were relegated to the less powerful.

When restaurants like the MS Hotel in Karnataka’s Udupi started dishing out “Brahmin thalis” in the 1960s, the disposable banana leaves on which the food was served ensured that the restaurant’s varied clientele – students, tourists and office-goers – would not contaminate each other’s meals by using the same crockery. All over the country, it is still preferred that thali cooks be from the upper castes, and who gets to eat these often elaborate meals is still largely determined by economic and social capital.

The question of whether thalis can be made more nutritious by using locally sourced ingredients is moot – they already do so. Perhaps instead of expending energy on creating something that sounds trendy but already exists, think-tanks such as the Deendayal Research Institute should consider answering the harder questions of how caste, class and politics affect people’s access to what they are able to eat.