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

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
News
A poster by Durham Constabulary
news
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine