Whoever came up with calling variety the spice of life would probably have never imagined the cornucopia of varied options we would enjoy in our present day lives. There has definitively never been a better time to be spoilt for choice—enterprise after enterprise is out to bring the best to our homes and other areas of our lives. Choice has never been so wide-ranging and important, or manifold and exciting.
Exciting options everywhere, there has never been a better time to be spoilt for choice.
Especially when it comes to dining. Extensive, well-presented dining menus are great, but buffets have a special place in our hearts. Buffets are popular for the reason that diners can help themselves to a little bit of everything, without worrying about the commitment required to finish a single dish ordered a la carte. A platter is another form of the buffet that assures variety and choice on a practical yet gratifying scale. Think of it as a mini buffet table that comes to you and can be passed around to share with others in the group.
The platter is a beautiful example of inclusiveness— diverse elements brought together by a unifying underlying theme. Each component can be served on its own, but still ties up harmoniously with the next on the serving dish. The leitmotif could be a cuisine represented by different dishes, or a primary ingredient cooked different ways, or even individual elements sharing a similar origin. So popular Chinese dishes like Peking duck, sweet and sour pork, spring rolls could be laid out collectively; potatoes and sweet potatoes roasted, mashed, fried and baked may be dished together on a ‘tater platter’; prawns a la plancha, Maryland crab cakes and lobster pollichathu could form a crustacean confederation.
A beautifully laid out platter is like a mini buffet table
Interestingly, if you think of it that way, India has had its own take on the platter for a long, long time. We call this a ‘thali’. Be it a Rajasthani thali that showcases the richness of the cuisine, or a rustic Maharashtrian thali that is a lesson in the compatible blending of spices, our concept of a thali ticks all the boxes that typically describe a platter. A quintessential thali may be viewed by most as a complete meal, with one or more appetizers, at least one protein-centric mains, sides of carbs and salad, and dessert. A thali may be vegetarian, meat- or fish-centric, depending on the local diet which ties in with geography and climate, culture etc.
A thali, just like a platter, has some of everything
Thus, the individual accents that separate one regional cuisine from the next come into play here as well. Take the case of seafood thalis. A Malvani fish thali will be quite distinct from, say, a Bengali one— seafood is the common factor here, but the preparation may greatly vary. Also, the selection of sides and accompaniments characterize each spread; the Malvani thali may pair an Amboli with the fish curry as opposed to the Bengali preference for Gobindo Bhog rice. The seafood thali however, across the country, features glorious local catch that may include sea, river or brackish water fish farmed or caught wild. It mirrors local cuisine that celebrates aquatic bounty and ingredients abundant in or even endemic to the region. So, fish thalis in most coastal areas feature coconut in some form owing to its plenteous availability in those places. Some aspects of the thalis may have seasonal references—so summers may mean the inclusion of green mangoes in the prawn curry, while the rainy season may see the use of dried fish.
The Daily Feast
Akin to a replete thali, a platter is seen as a bounteous treat marked for special occasions. After all, who wants to stuff themselves to the gills with rich repasts every day, right? Mercifully, a platter can be as heavy or as light as you want to make it; it’s the variety of your menu that can make it an everyday celebration. Marinate and grill a couple of seer fish steaks (“surmai”, as it’s locally known) in a masala paste of your choice, throw on some prawns on the grill too, and serve these with cooked squid rings alongside a creamy dip, and a salad. Your co-workers may think you are superhuman to dish up all that after a long day at work, when you describe last night’s dinner, but you know what a breeze it can be with a little planning.
Dishing out a colourful platter can be quick enough to be a daily affair
Having access to good seafood makes a platter an easy affair to put together. A freezer well-stocked with several choices of fish steaks, crabs, lobsters, shrimp etc. will take you from the kitchen to the dining table quickly, all year round. What’s even better is individually frozen portions of seafood, so you can dish up appropriately-sized portions as needed. Unlike meats, seafood doesn’t need long marination or cooking time either, so a platter is the perfect everyday feast. With access to exotic ingredients and recipes getting easier, you can play around with culinary themes for meals. Go ahead and plan that Mediterranean-inspired seafood platter for lunch or an Indian-themed tawa pomfret and halibut, and prawn tikka for dinner.
Change the Conversation
A little planning also comes in handy when it comes to putting together that special platter for your favourite people. Place a platter on your table and see it become the star dish that wins top billing; that one dish that you won’t have to save to slave over when you can catch a breath (and a glass of wine, hopefully), and will still be the highlight of your lunch or dinner. The one that gets served in that big, but not necessarily fancy, plate, around which your dining companions linger. It’s amazing to watch how a well-laid platter can make the conversation change—talk about insipid everyday stuff changes to smiles and excitement. Friends and family gather round to share their favourite bites and fun stories. It may be familiar anecdotes that everybody knows too well, but sharing them, just like sharing a platter, is a new joy each time.
Magic, sometimes, is in the joy of re-experiencing a happy familiar.
About the Author An incorrigible gastronome, Rupika V is on a perpetual quest to find the best food around, and will happily travel far to find it.