While the word thali means the plate the food is eaten in, it also describes a specific type of meal. For the unversed, thalis are the best way to enjoy a sumptuous meal and no thali is complete without the small round ‘katoris’ or little bowls in which the curries, dals and the vegetable preparations are served. Thalis are basically an inventive way to bring together a variety of dishes and flavours on one platter. As you move across regions in the country, you’ll be greeted with a different set of dishes all put together on a single plate. When it comes to taste, no particular thali in India can upstage another. Each thali is distinct and heroes the cuisine of the region. Thus you will be heartened to know that no matter where you travel to in the country, a thali awaits you.
The first thing that comes to mind when we Indians think of a thali are a Rajasthani or a Gujarati Thali or the Onam Sadya from Kerala that are primarily vegetarian. However, thalis actually come in two variants, vegetarian and non vegetarian. In a non-vegetarian thali you can choose between fish, chicken or mutton as your protein with an added advantage that you get to taste the best of both worlds i.e. a repertoire of both vegetarian and non vegetarian delicacies. All you need to do is opt for a non-vegetarian thali, pay a price and then it is an all-you-can-eat bonanza unless you have chickened out and opted for a limited thali or a mini thali. Although there is generally a certain progression of dishes that one can follow while gorging on the thali, you start off eating the spicier dishes and end with a sweet dish to cool off your palate, feel free to wing it and party in the delightful assortment on your plate. And just remember, whether your preference is for the spicy or sour, vegetarian or seafood you will never be disappointed.
Described here are some exclusive fish thalis that are sure to tickle your taste-buds and take you on a gastronomic adventure.
So let’s begin with our seafood thali exploration shall we?
1. Bengali Fish Thali
There is surely something fishy about this cuisine, here fish is the hero and everything else revolves around it. A Bengali thali comprises at least five elaborate courses starting with some bitter dish to cleanse your palate and ends on a sweet note with some milk based sweets or dessert. Served first are gondhoraj lebu (Lime), noon (salt) and lonka (green chillis), followed by pappad. In the first course shukto, a bitter mix vegetable curry made with bitter gourd and neem leaves is served, it acts as a palate cleanser. Next come lentils and bhajalike Begun Bhaja (Fried eggplant), Kumro Bhaja (Fried pumpkin), this is followed by vegetable dishes which are mildly spiced likecharchari (skillet charred veggies with mustard paste), Chechki (dry veggies dish cooked in its own juicewith tempering) orDalna (light gravy item). Then follows suit the ubiquitous fish without which no Bengali meal is complete. More than forty types of mostly freshwater fish are common in Bengal, including carp varieties like Rui (Rohu) and Catla, the wriggling Catfish family-Tengra, Magur, Shingi, Pabda (the pink-bellied Indian Butter Fish), Ilish (Hilsa), as well as Shuţki (small dried sea fish). Chingri (Prawns) is particularly popular and comes in varieties. The fish preparation in a thali can come cooked in various gravies as per your choice such as the jhol (light curry with vegetables), jhal (light curry with turmeric, cumin seeds, and whole green chillies), kalia (rich curry with onions, ginger paste and tomatoes), sorshe (mustard curry) or malai curry (coconut milk curry). And it all ends with mishti (desserts) like Rosogolla, Mishti Doi, Bengali Rabri, Shondesh and the list goes on. If you have a sweet tooth, Bengal will not disappoint you. And after all this heavy eating the meal is said to be digested with some Mishti Paan (Betel leaf)
2. Assamese FishThali
Assamese style of cooking is a convergence of cooking habits of the hills that favors fermentation and drying as forms of food preservation, and those from the plains that provide fresh vegetables and abundance of fish from its many rivers and ponds with a common main ingredient—rice. A traditional Assamese Thali presents a burst of fresh flavors. Rice is accompanied by the popular masortenga (fish in a sour gravy) and khar, a vegetable preparation made using dried banana skin and a meat dish, usually either a chicken curry or duck curry. The fish preparation, masortenga is a staple during Rongali Bihu (Assamese New Year), this is a light and tangy fish curry that is prepared with OuTenga (Elephant Apple). Mas means fish and tenga means sour in Assamese. One of Assam’s signature preparations, where the use of a special mix of five spices (cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds and onion seeds) known as panchphoran is what gives this fish dish its delicious flavor. Another member of the thali is a typical Assamese side dish, Aloo Pitika made with mashed potatoes, boiled egg and mustard oil. This is served alongside dals and seasonal vegetables. The sumptuous meal is to be finished with Assamese payox (kheer) as a dessert.
3. Odia FishThali
Odisha, previously known as Orissa is a coastal state that boasts of a huge menu that includesa huge variety of rice, lentils, desserts and sea food. With a simple yet delicious cuisine, Odisha follows a food pattern that is somewhat similar to the neighboring states. A typical Odia meal will comprise rice, dal, a vegetable dish or two, something fried, and a fish curry or mutton curry. Asignificant proportion of population here relishes fish and other sea food delicacies like Prawns, Crabs and Lobsters that are found aplenty courtesythe vast coastline of the state. Popular fishes areRohu, Pabda, Catla, Bhetki as well as Chingudi.Mustard oil, besara (mustard seeds pounded with garlic), panchphutana (five spices) are three important ingredients in the cuisine.The curries are also garnished with dried raw mango (ambula) and tamarind. Oriya thali consists of a main course, sides and desserts. It starts with rice and dal, with a fried bhajalike BaiganaBhaja (Fried eggplant), Aloo Bhaja (fried potatoes),or any other seasonal vegetable along with badichura (dried lentil mash), tomato khejurikhatta (sweet and sour tomato and dates chutney) as a side dish, followed by the fish preparation which varies from the soriso machha (fish cooked in mustard gravy), chingudi masala (prawns cooked in onion and ginger garlic gravy) to a simple machha tarkari (fish cooked in a simple tomato onion gravy) and more rice. Dessert includeschhenapoda (baked cheese cake) or kheeri (kheer).
4. Mahrashtrian Fish Thali
Maharashtrian cuisine is extremely versatile. Presence of multifarious communities in the state has led to a rich variety in recipes. The classic Maharashtrian thali will have a little amount of rice in one corner with daal in a bowl, and chappati or bhakri in the other corner. Add to that a variety of bhajis (vegetable dishes) like batatya chi bhaji (potato dish) vaangya che bharit (stuffed eggplant), matki chi bhaji (sprouts gravy), sabudaana vada (a deep fried sago snack) and a refreshing glass of mattha (buttermilk). With sweets like aamras and sheera, the thali is certainly not lacking when it comes to desserts. A vast coastline ensures that there is no dearth of seafood in the state hence the fish thali juggles quantity and quality with flair; here you’ll be treated to some fish masala, Bombil Fry (fresh Bombay Ducks coated with a masala-based batter and fried till crisp) and some killer coconut-and-kokam Sol Kadi that you should never pass up on. On the other hand, a typical Malvani thali will feature fried Surmai in a coconut-based fiery gravy or rassa, it is well-spiced without being too heavy and pairs heavenly with steamed rice. The other options for for some serious seafood feasting include the Crab Thali, Teesrya (Clams) Thali and Prawns Thali. So just choose your seafood, there would definitely be a thali around it.
5. Goan Fish Thali
The sheer abundance of seafood, the availability as well as the range can be exciting and overwhelming for anybody visiting Goa. The fish varieties include Mackerel, Sardine, Snapper and Barramundi, while Mussel, Squid, Prawn, Lobster and Mud Crab are varieties of shellfish commonly found in the region. Influenced partly by its former Portuguese rulers the cuisine offers a distinct variety marked by a generous use of coconut. And rightly so, the Goan Thali is as awesome as the beaches in Goa. Goan cuisine is synonymous with seafood, rice, coconut, fish and yes, kokum! The rice plate or xit-kodi(literally, rice-curry) is Goa’s lunchtime staple—at the most basic, it will comprise rice, curry and fried fish. The thali includes at least four kinds of seafood in four different preparations (like a fried fish, Prawn curry, Crab masala and Clam sabji) along with kismur (dried shrimp salad with raw onions and coconut) a vegetarian gravy, pickle and sol-kadi(a digestive juice of kokum and seasoned coconut milk). Also popular are Squid Masala Fry, Baby Chonak (Sea Perch) and Crab Masala Fry. Finish it off with some banana halwa and you are primed for a snooze.
6. Kerala Fish Thali
True to its name, the ‘land of spices’, Kerala’s cuisine offers amazing thali options that spans both vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian dishes. The coastal areas of Kerala are known for their seafood delicacies while the plains are known for their vegetarian items. Indians are known for elaborate meals, and the Kerala thali exemplifies it best. Kerala’s food is generally hot and spicy. The food is traditionally eaten by hands and served on banana leaves. A generous use of coconut oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves and coconut milk is characteristic of their daily cooking. There is no ‘rule’ to this thali and it contains liberal helpings of rice, sambhar, kootu (vegetable curry cooked with lentils), Malabar parotta, cabbage stir fry, avial (a delicious preparation made with mixed vegetables), paapadam, curd paired with brown rice and for dessert, there’s paayasam (a sweet made with rice and lentils) to complete the meal.The seafood in the thali is represented by the local lobster, cheemeenvaruthathu (prawn fry), karimeenpollichathu (Marinated pearl spot fish wrapped up in a banana leaf and steamed) and fish curry.
7. Mangalorean Fish Thali
Mangalore in Karnataka is a melting pot of communities like Beary Muslims, Mangalorean Catholics, Saraswath Brahmins, and Bunts to name a few, the local cuisine is a delicious reflection of this coalescence.The ingredients that are used in Mangalorean cuisine are mostly seasonal and local. This includes coconut in all its forms, spices such as fresh and dried chillies, pepper, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon and tamarind or sol (called Monkey Jack, a dried fruit similar to kokum) as souring agents. Some of the other ingredients that play an important role in this cuisine are garlic, ginger, curry leaves and tamarind. Like all coastal communities, fish is an indispensable part of the everyday meal. There are several popular combinations like prawn and breadfruit curry, dried fish and raw mango curry, steamed Colocasia leaf cakes (Pathrade) dunked in mutton curry, winter melon with mutton. Vegetarian options include spinach curry with black eyed peas or dal, ridge gourd peel and coconut chutney and raw jackfruit and black channa sukka (Sweet and spicy chickpea with coconut). A characteristic seafood thali here will comprise rice, fried fish, Mangalorean fish curry and fried prawns along with a full vegetarian fare.
Almost every Indian state and/or region has their own distinctive version of the thali, an ode to local tastes and cooking styles. These are merely a few to get you a taste of the world of seafood thalis. Happy discovering many more!
About the Author
She day-dreams about new recipes,
devours cook-books, writes, cooks and
takes pictures of delicious food.