On a recent trip to Sainji, popularly known as the corn village in Uttarakhand, I found myself sitting on the floor of a 200-year-old house with a Garhwali thali in front of me. The platter was laden with dishes – a bowl of gahat ki dal (made of horse gram and soya bean), kandle ki sabji (vegetable made with stinging nettle leaves), jakhiya aloo (potato tempered with jakhiya seeds) and makke ki roti (flatbreads made of corn). As I devoured my way through the delicious food, it struck me that every dish featured local produce and was there for a reason.

Gahat, for starters, grows widely in the hills of the state and is known to “provide heat to the body during the bitter winters”, explained Siddharth Bhardwaj, executive chef at the JW Marriott Mussoorie. Similarly, stinging nettle is a plant that survives even the snowfall. The rotis on the thali were made with corn, which is common in the region. Bunches of corn, tied together and left to dry, are often seen hanging from the ceilings of verandahs of homes.

As noted food critic Pushpesh Pant says, a thali “provides a window into the cultural life of the people and the region it represents”. For many though, thalis are commonly associated with staple dishes, such as Gatte ki Sabzi and Daal Bati Churma, or popular tiffin items from South India that are found in restaurant chains. But India is also home to several lesser-known thalis with dishes that truly reflect food habits of communities, regional produce and historical influences.

A Garhwali thali. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

Coast to coast

One such thali is the Kokanastha thali of Chitpavan Brahmins settled along the Konkan coast. This region is dotted with paddy fields, coconut farms and cashew nut plantations. Vegetables like jackfruit and colocasia are commonly grown here. As a result, a typical Kokanastha thali includes dishes such as phansachi bhaji, which is made by combining jackfruit with freshly ground masalas; kaju chi usal, made with tender cashews cooked into a mild curry; alu wadi (colocasia leaf fritters); besides several rice and coconut-based items.

Moving along the Western coast, one can find Parsi bhonu. These Parsi meals, served at weddings, meld the community’s Iranian roots with coastal influences. Stews, gosht (meat) as well as dishes like patra ni macchi are the hallmarks of a Parsi thali. Spices are used with restraint as the recipes were adapted to suit the milder palates of the British, with whom the community was closely associated. The British influence is also seen in the Parsi love for puddings, jellies and sauces – the lagan nu custard, or baked wedding custard, is a staple Parsi thali dessert.

“It’s easy to see how the thali represents the entire culture of a place on a plate,” said Pritha Sen, a food historian and consultant chef.

Coastal as well as inland influences can be found in the Chettinad thali of Tamil Nadu’s Chettiar community. Legend has it that several centuries ago, the trading community first lived on the Coromandel coast before a flood pushed them into the dry heartland of Tamil Nadu. Their thalis feature a mix of seafood fare – such as meen kuzhambu (fish curry), nandu (crab) masala, sura puttu (shark fin curry) and eral (prawn) masala – and preparations made with jungle fowl and quail. The Chettiars were actively involved in the spice trade, so star anise, pepper and marathi moggu (kapok buds) are used extensively in their cuisine. Their travels also infused foreign influences into their food, as seen in dishes like Kavuni arisi (a black sticky rice pudding), which has Burmese roots, and Idiyappam (steamed string hoppers) from Sri Lanka.

A Chettinad thali. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

In the North, the Dham thali, which is local to Himachal Pradesh, comprises dried and semi-processed ingredients instead of vegetables. “Finger and barnyard millets, lentils like black soya bean, yams and Himalayan chives are staples of a Dham thali,” said Pant. Lentils, such as moong dal and rajma (red kidney beans) or chole (chickpeas), are cooked with a madrah, which is made up of 20 spices. The maash dal, cooked by mixing three types of dals – moong, urad and masoor – is another staple on the Dham thali. The story goes that this cuisine originated more than 1,000 years ago. Jaistambh, the Himachali king at the time, wanted his cooks to replicate the Kashmiri wazwan. His only condition was: it should not contain any meat. The Dhaam food was initially served only at temples and contains no onion, ginger or garlic.

Local influences have also played a key role in shaping Kodava cuisine or the food of Coorg. Foraging, the technique popularised by celebrity chefs such as René Redzepi in his iconic restaurant Noma, has always been intrinsic to the Kodava cuisine. This landlocked region on the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats abounds in forests that are home to a mind-boggling variety of indigenous wild fruits and vegetables. Bamboo shoot curry, vegetables prepared with wild mango, wild mushrooms in coconut curry and a tangy pandi curry (a pork recipe) are staples on a Kodava thali.

“Most dishes have a typical sour taste, which comes from the Kachampuli balsamic vinegar that is prepared by extracting the juice from the kudampuli fruit found in the forests of Coorg,” said Fancy Muthamma, a home chef from Coorg. “We also make orange pickle prepared from local bitter oranges called kaipuli.”

Diverse traditions

Serving food on a thali is not just about ladling out dishes. Some communities strictly observe Vedic traditions, which even define the order of courses. “In Bengal, the thali is representative of the way of eating laid out by Ayurveda – the progression of the five tastes [sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami] translated into course-by-course eating,” said Sen. The Bengali thali begins with a bitter dish called the shukto (vegetable made with bitter elements like bitter gourd or bitter greens) and ends with sweets and a sweet curd, which aids in digestion. “The bitter shukto is said to excite the stomach juices in preparation for food as well as act as a blood cleanser,” said Sen.

A Bengali thali. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

In the case of Dham thali, said Pant, “people eat as they please”. The only rule “is that everyone in a pangat (line) starts and finishes the formal meal together. People are seated according to seniority in age and social status”. As per Bohri tradition, everyone eating a thali “sits down on the floor and eats together, generally in groups of eight,” said Hozef Darukhanawala, the owner of Kaka Kaki, a Bohri cafe in Mumbai. This gesture “represents the idea of equality and community eating. It also enables less or no wastage of food”.

It’s important to note though that not all Indian communities and regions had thali meals. According to Anoothi Vishal, author of a book on Kayasth cuisine, caste was an important deciding factor. “In many parts of Northern India, primarily Brahmins and Baniyas followed the thali rituals, while others like the Rajputs didn’t,” she said. Among Kayasthas – a community whose members served as scribes in Mughal courts and then were part of the bureaucracy under British India – food rituals around worship involved thali-like meals. “Of these, namak daan (salty, savoury dishes) and shree daan (sweet dishes) were common in Uttar Pradesh,” said Vishal. “Namak daan had poori, kachori, aloo (potato), kaddu (pumpkin), boondi raita (boondi mixed in curd) as well as namak paare, mathri or besan ke sev, while the shree daan had only sweets like besan ke laddoo (sweet balls made with chickpeas powder) and kheer (rice pudding).”

Before I left Sainji, the villagers offered me some jaan, a local beer prepared by fermenting boiled rice grown in the region, along with balam, a local, wheat-based starter culture. As I sipped on the drink, I realised that in this world far removed from the gloss of supermarkets, eating local and natural is not a promotional catchphrase – it is traditional knowledge, handed down generations and built unobtrusively into lifestyles.