Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A tribute to the thali

During Easter I spent over two weeks in India exploring Mumbai and Goa. And of course a major part of that trip was sampling all the culinary delights that area of India has to offer. While the boiling-point temperatures and humidity normally meant that my appetite took a bit of a dent, my general love of Indian food and the sheer diversity of Indian cuisine meant that food was often on my mind! I was determined to seek out as many diverse tastes as I could, and staying with a friend meant that she could suggest options and places which otherwise the general tourist might not be aware of.

That being said, one of my favourite meals was at a particular place often mentioned in the guide books, and for good reason. Rajdhani Thali is a highly successful chain in Mumbai and South India (and a little beyond) focusing on the 'thali' meal. A thali is basically an assortment of lots of small different dishes, normally served with breads and rice. If you order a thali from a UK Indian restaurant or takeaway you normally get 3 dishes and a rice/poppadom. The items included are set and normally not that diverse, and it's normally one of the more expensive items on the menu, presumably because of the priviledge of having all the different stuff.

But a thali in India is different! Presented on a large steel tray, it is a colourful formation of usually more than 5 small steel bowls filled with various dishes, with rice and/or bread and chutneys served on the tray itself. And a thali at Rajdhani is even more amazing. Cheap, delicious and all vegetarian but I'll wager it would convert any committed carnivore. You arrive to a table set up with the requisite metal tray and 10 empty (for now...) small bowls on a large steel tray. Men stride up and down between the tables holding serving bowls (larger versions of the ones you see often with relishes or dips, a handle down the middle with multiple bowls attached around it), who instantly fill your bowls with a flourish. And suddenly you have 9-10 mouthwatering things to dip your bread into - sorry, breadS into - they give you three or four different types. And did I also mention it's 'bottomless'? Meaning that the waiters will keep refilling your little bowls until you tell them to stop. You also have a man that comes up with a jug and bowl before and after the meal so you can wash your hands. And how much is the whole experience? 299 rupees per person, under £5!

So....what was on the plate. Not an exhaustive list but here goes. Snacks and accompaniments were potato bhajis, sweet and sour tamarind chutney, green (coriander and mint) chutney, coconut chutney, chopped cucumber and onion salad and dhokla, a steamed white airy square made of gram flour (texture almost like a cake or fluffy American pancake - very absorbent for dipping!). Breads were wedges of lovely floppy chappatis and an unusual hard, almost-pastry like bread shaped with ridges. There was rice and also khichdi which is a yellow mound of stodgy creamy rice and dal (lentils) cooked together topped with ghee. Things to dip in or scoop up was a mixture of sweet and savoury dishes - this is a restaurant favoured by Gujuratis who apparently have a very sweet tooth and love combinations of sweet and savoury flavours in their food. So the small dishes were filled with: spicy dals; potato curry; a strange tangy sour-sweet dish called mango kadhi made with yoghurt or buttermilk, mango and spices; chickpea and black eyed beans curry; paneer and peas (one of my faves, very rich and buttery!); dry fried okra; bhindi (aubergines) masala. For dessert malpuas (small round deep fried flour discs soaked in sugar syrup) for dipping into aam ras (mango pulp) and my newly discovered favourite 'shrikhand' - yoghurt that has been strained and flavoured with sugar and cardomom. A sweet-sour flavour and texture sort of akin to lemon curd (without the lemon, and more creamy), it's totally moreish and refreshing.

Bearing in mind the heat and humidity outside, and the fact that we were next due to wander around some street markets, my friend and I thought it prudent to not totally eat ourselves into too much of a stupor. However, I think I amused the staff by my repeated requests for more shrikhand, and also managed a good few bowls of other favourite things. I left wishing I could eat it all again, and feeling that I'd experienced something really special despite the fact that in the context of Mumbai Rajdhani isn't really a fancy restaurant. It's an everyday sort of place that is deservedly well attended by people simply looking for a reasonably priced, interesting and pretty wholesome meal. They even offer to deliver set meal boxes to your home: though of course sadly this doesn't include the tantalising bottomless aspect, which from my greedy perspective was the icing on the cake of this delightful eating adventure.