How to hold your own with a thali

Thali is the ubiquitous Indian lunch, and every traveller's dream. The thali is named after the dish in which it is traditionally served (usually a metal platter with small, fitted bowls known as katori) and features dry and wet vegetable dishes, roti, poppadoms (daal wafers), rice, pickle, curd, a sweet and meat. Not only is it a cheap all-you-can-eat affair, it is a perfectly balanced meal and gives you the opportunity to taste many Indian dishes at the one sitting. But if you're on your own, the first thali can be a daunting experience.

Thali is the ubiquitous Indian lunch, and every traveller's dream. The thali is named after the dish in which it is traditionally served (usually a metal platter with small, fitted bowls known as katori) and features dry and wet vegetable dishes, roti, poppadoms (daal wafers), rice, pickle, curd, a sweet and meat. Not only is it a cheap all-you-can-eat affair, it is a perfectly balanced meal and gives you the opportunity to taste many Indian dishes at the one sitting. But if you're on your own, the first thali can be a daunting experience.

Walk into a restaurant during a busy afternoon and you'll be told that there's no menu, just meals. Presume this means there are vegetarian or non-vegetarian thalis. Find the basin, wash your hands and take a seat. You'll notice that everyone in the restaurant is looking at you. Within moments, the plate will be laid in front of you with curds, pickles, raita (yoghurt or curds combined with any number of vegetables or fruit, served chilled) and dessert.

The waiter will be excited to see a foreigner and will smile and nod a lot. He'll bring a steel tumbler and fill it with the house water. Responding to the anxious look on your face, he'll chirp, "Mineral?". Another waiter will come from your blind side and start piling your plate with various dishes, deftly scooping them from one of four small containers hanging from a rotating tray. By the time you've managed to break the seal on your mineral water – the thirstier you are, the more difficult the seal – another waiter will enter the scene with a bucket of rice. Catch his eye and he will dash over to shovel rice on to the middle of your plate.

The other diners are watching to see what you do next. Maybe the foreigner is waiting for a fork. Tee-hee, they can hardly contain themselves. The waiter stands over your shoulder, primed to pounce to your aid in case you confuse your dessert with your raita (ahem, it has been done). The other diners are egging you on silently; they'll be pleased if you have learned their ways, and pleased if you provide entertainment by making an arse of yourself. They can't lose.

What do you do? Pause for dramatic effect... and get stuck in. Flatten the rice and add the other dishes. Grab pinches of the dry ones, pour the wet ones. Add a little pickle if you dare. Mix it all up with extravagant gestures, making a sumptuous gluggy mess.

Meanwhile, the different textures and aromas enveloping your senses are whipping your appetite into a frenzy. Take a ball of food and scoop it into your mouth with your thumb. A bit too hot? Add a little curd. Take strips of bread by pushing it against the thali with your thumb while ripping the edges off with your fingers. Use it to pinch up mouthfuls of food. Nothing can stop you now. By the time you break the poppadom over the mound of food, you'll have gained the respect of everyone in the restaurant.

Once you've eaten even a nibble from any of the dishes, the waiter will race over to supply more. He won't ask and you'll have your mouth full. Soon you'll get used to pointing to the dishes you want more of, and covering the ones you don't. You can even try it with your eyebrows. Eyebrows raised: more. Eyebrows tensed: no more.

This is an edited extract from 'World Food India', just published by Lonely Planet, price £8.99

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