I so love the thali. I love the idea of it, the assortment it offers, its potential for creativity and the serendipitous surprises it promises. A bad thali is an oxymoron, I have long declared to furrowed brows.
Hmm. That was then. That was when the thali, any thali, was the inexpensive all-you-can-eat comfort food, the stodgy get-away from greasy Mughlai, fast food and continental fare. That was before online deliveries, the glut of city restaurants and the discovery of my own gluten sensitivity.
I’d trot about to thali joints, skip the rotis and puris, the samosas and the rava kheer, make sure no maida lurked in the chana dal undhiyoo muthias and proceed to scale hillocks of steamed rice, pulao and khichdi. Extra ghee and digestive saunf, please.
September 2018. My friend Feroza invites me to dinner, to the world’s best Gujarati thali that is à la home-cooked, not oily, pungent and flamboyant. I am thrilled, although I hide a healthy scepticism and hope I’m not being led to my family dining table. I do like my grease.
Before I can say Shree Thaker Bhojnalay at Kalbadevi I am fed another mouthful. Of the freshest, most delicately spiced, non-oily, creative, delicious vegetarian thali meal on the…well…face of the earth.
I do the ‘no maida, no rava, no wheat’ routine with Krishna, the friendly owner. ‘Which gluten-free roti will you start with? Corn, nachni or bajra?’ he asks.
‘L’embarras du choix.’ That’s French for ‘luxury of a choice’. Except that it translates literally as ‘the bother of a choice.’ That is what I am left with. That and patra, pakodas, papad, basundi, malai-sandwich and bowlfuls of various subzis: French beans, cluster beans, palak mutter, potato-tomato, chana, ladyfingers.
Oops. I tell an untruth. No bowlfuls of various subzis. The bowls aren’t full. They aren’t half-full either. They just about make it to quarter-full.
My friends point to words on a wall. Please do not waste food, it reads. That is good, we concur. Zealous waiters at thali restaurants tend to bung food into bowls.
Here’s something else I learn: the food here isn’t cooked army-style, in large vessels. The utensils are small; the meal is cooked fresh, as and when the orders roll in.
I gulp down a third glass of buttermilk and whine that I have overeaten. I trundle to the parking lot of the Parsi Fire temple nearby and roll into the backseat. I need a bed.