A Guide to Eating Thali in India
Thalis are one of the most delicious and inexpensive dishes that you will encounter throughout your travels in India; however, they can be intimidating if you don’t know how to eat them. Our friend, Surya, generously gave us a few lessons in how to approach eating thalis – we hope that this guide helps you as much as it did us. Enjoy!
What is a Thali
The thali is typically served on a round plate (or more traditionally, a banana leaf), with small bowls (including vegetables, curries and curd) lining the periphery; in the center of the plate is places a heap of plain rice, which is replenished as you move through the meal.
Although thalis can now be found in the north and south of India, the thali (Hindi for “the plate”) has its origins in South India, given its orientation around rice (as compared to the north’s orientation around wheat).
Fingers, please… A thali is traditionally eaten with your fingers, and only with the finger of the right hand, specifically. Use your left hand only for pouring the curries onto your rice and to grasp your drinking glass.
Rice is central to the dish. The rice sits in the center of the plate; you divide off a portion of the rice and place the different curries or vegetables on top of that portion (rather than pouring the sauce over the top of the whole pile of rice on your plate). Mix the sauces in with the rice with your fingers to get a good spread throughout the rice.
How to Eat Thali
There is an order to the progression of thali eating:
- Begin by eating any of the vegetables (in both curries and dry form) on the plate. You can also eat the vegetables throughout as an accompaniment to the rice and sauce courses to follow.
- The fiery lentil-based vegetable sauce called “sambhar” is next to be eaten (it is added to a portion of rice as you desire).
- The chili- and tamarind-based “vathal kozhambu”, the spiciest of the three sauces, is eaten next with rice. Note that this sauce is not always given.
- The “rasam”, mixed with rice, is always eaten last of the sauces. It imparts a tomatoey and peppery palate.
- Curd (yoghurt) mixed with rice is always eaten last, to cool your palate and aid with digestion. The roasted dry chili can be added for balance.
- There is sometimes a sweet for dessert added as well.
Then again, you could just wing it! Just pretend like you know what you are doing and all will be well….Enjoy!
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