Thalis and flying chapatis

January 20, 2011 • 4:57 am

I’ve been to India about half a dozen times—for pleasure, not for work—and I love both the country and the food.  Along with Chinese and French, I consider Indian food (both northern and southern) one of the three greatest cuisines of the world.

One of the great joys of eating in India is the thali: a partitioned metal tray that contains a variety of dishes, along with bread, lentils (dal), pickle, rice, and often dessert.  The individual dishes can be in katoris—small aluminum or stainless steel cups—or spread out as little heaps on a banana leaf.  You always eat a thali with your hands (right hand only, please!), using a piece of chapati or a small ball of rice to pick up the food.

Often, especially in southern India, these are all-you-can eat affairs: when you finish a dish, a man comes around and replenishes it, along with more rice or (in northern India) chapatis, the ubiquitous round, flat breads that accompany all meals.   Here is a simple vegetarian thali, with rice, chapatis, pickle (the dab at 10 o’clock) a papad (crisp bread), vegetable dishes (okra, spinach with Indian cheese—paneer, etc.), and yogurt (raita). (Note: these are not my photos).

Here’s a fancier south Indian thali, which includes dessert (gulab jamun, the syrup soaked pastry balls at four o’clock).  You’d get this in a fancier restaurant, but it would still be all you can eat.

And, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a true south Indian thali like this:


Here’s a video (excuse the poor audio) showing what it’s like to eat in a pretty fancy thali restaurant.  This one is in Rajasthan, and is vegetarian.

Hungry yet?

We are lucky in Chicago, for we have a huge Indian community (up north, along Devon Avenue) housing dozens of restaurants and Indian shops.  There you can get the best Indian food I’ve found outside of India itself—and that includes the vaunted but westernized emporia of the UK.

But this is all an excuse to show this video of a man making chapatis in what is likely a thali restaurant.  Since it’s all you can eat, and bread is your utensil, the demand for chapatis is constant.

The sad thing is that this job is probably all the guy does—many hours per day, and perhaps for life.  That’s undoubtedly why he’s so good at throwing the chapatis.  To travel in India, you must somehow come to terms with the ubiquitious poverty and disease that accompanies such a rich culture.  But that’s a subject for another day.

38 thoughts on “Thalis and flying chapatis

  1. What a shame. That guy’s so bored about being so awesome.

    My girlfriend’s in India now and she also told me about having to eat with her right hand. I’m the kind of contrarian who would eat with my left just to buck the tradition, but now I wonder why such a rule is in place. Perhaps it relates to them cleaning themselves with their left hands in the bathroom…?

    1. Yes, to be blunt, they clean their butts after defecation with their LEFT hand and some water (no toilet paper used). If you were contrarian and tried to buck the tradition by eating with your left hand, you would make people ill who were watching. It would be considered extremely bad manners, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

      1. I worked in a Moroccan restaurant way, way back (in Colorado). The same quaint custom applied, though there wasn’t (obviously) a practical need for it.

      2. That’s a bit exaggerated. I grew up in India and knew several people who ate with their left hand. I think it was understood that they wiped their asses with their right hands, so it didn’t make anybody ill.

        I will admit that the milieu in which I was raised is pretty unrepresentative (affluent, urban, pretty Westernized). Still, India is so large and diverse that pretty much any particular milieu is unrepresentative. No doubt eating with your left hand would be frowned upon in many parts of the country, but India resists generalizations.

      3. Absolutely, JC!

        When in Asia, I sit on my left hand when I sit to a meal to make sure I don’t forget!

        Very rude!

        Don’t touch them on their shoulders or head either. Don’t point with fingers or the bottoms of your feet. “When in Rome … try not to cause offense.”

        I feel an obligation to learn about the local culture and conform to it as best I can as a visitor. To me, it’s a matter of respect. And why are you going if you aren’t going to find out what it’s like there? Why try to impose your (arbitrary) conventions on the hosts of your visit?

      4. I’m a lefty and my mom said I’m special, so to hell with the status-quo.

        Also, I heard the right-handed wipe back to front. Is this true?

      5. Such a similar “rule” exists in Arabic cultures as well.
        A bit unfair on those who have have left-brain strokes, and thieves who have had their right hands amputated…

  2. Best Indian dessert I’ve ever had was made from grits, mango puree, and cardamom. Probably a few other ingredients but those are the main ones. No idea what it’s called, and the restaurant only offers it occasionally.

    1. It’s called ‘suji’. In southern India, it is often made sans sugar as an afternoon snack and called ‘uthappam’.

  3. I’m going to visit a friend in New Delhi for a week next month, and am looking forward to trying the local food. This post definitely didn’t make me look less forward to it.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. If you’re in Connaught Circus, which you almost certainly will be, I’d recommend the vegetarian thali at the Vega restaurant in the Alka Hotel. I haven’t been there for a few years, but it had an awesome thali. And rely heavily on the advice of your friend. For meat-based cuisine, I highly recommend Karim’s in Old Delhi, near the Jama Masjid.

      1. Thanks. My friend is a fellow Dane who is working in New Delhi on a short term assignment. She has been there a couple of months, and while she works, and hang out, with Indians, I am not sure she have had the time to do much exploring yet, so any advice is definitely appreciated.

      2. Why, I’m Indian(though, admittedly, not from Delhi) and you know more than I do about eating in Delhi than I do. Thanks for the tip!

  4. No fair–I have to read posts like this at midnight! ….hungry…. oishi-soooo…

    I should post about the children’s book we have on how to use the Japanese potty, and which also goes into potty practices around the world… of course, it’s cute…

  5. Indian is perhaps my favourite cuisine, and I’m lucky that my city (Toronto) is blessed with a large Indian population. In fact, I had Indian last night at a local restaurant (and I frequently lunch at an Indian buffet near work).

    I’ve also become a huge fan of Indian-Chinese cuisine, which gets labeled “hakka” here, although I understand that may be an inaccurate term for the kind of food the restaurants serve.

      1. This *is* relevant to its aerodynamics. I suspect the higher density of porotta dough would affect its air-speed velocity, when unladen of course.

  6. You’ve reminded me of how I do so love thalis! In the Village (the Greenwich one, where I live) there used to be a wonderful sliver of a restaurant called Thali. You’d go in, sit at one of the 8 small tables and…out of the kitchen would come the thali of the day. All vegetarian at that place. No need to order; need only to eat.
    With tea the total bill came to around $12.
    In that same spot now (Greenwich Avenue) is a respectable replacement, a wonderful Indonesian restaurant called Satay Junction. Also reasonable. Also yummy. But you have to choose your dinner.

  7. Yum, yum, eatem up! Now I know one place in Chicago that must be visited for food!

    And there is a lovely near-continuum of flavors running from Italy and France, through Greece, the western “Middle East”, Iran, India (writ large), SE Asia and on to China. I love them all. A great place to try everything from India onward is Singapore: All the great (eastern-half) Asian cuisines, and you don’t have to worry about getting sick.

    I agree on the great cuisines: French, Chinese, and Indian.

  8. Having grown up eating Indian food my entire life one would think I’d hold it in high regard. Granted, it’s comfort food, and I do enjoy many a dish. But placing it in the top tier of world culinary traditions is not being fair to those truly at the pinnacle of gastronomy (the French, in my opinion). Indian food is very diverse, varying from state to state more than it does from country to country in Europe. But in most cases it is way over-cooked. Most dishes resemble porridge like blobs. Spices don’t complement the flavors of the main ingredient. They often overwhelm and mask them. And so many spices get used in a single dish that the signature of each is in eternal battle with those of a dozen others. The result if often a generic overbearing heat. Taste is subjective and that’s what millions think is great cuisine. I personally beg to differ.

    1. It is a ‘work rhythm’ behaviour, much as when a blacksmith bounces the hammer off the anvil between blows.
      It is unessential for the actual work at hand, but seems to me to be a by-product of the human nervous system.
      Try blacksmithing, and you won’t be able help it!

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