South India is a vegetarian paradise. With the world’s largest veg population, every street is crowded with restaurants that proclaim VEG (no meat) and PURE VEG (no meat or eggs). Even those places that do serve meat feel compelled to say so in veg terms: NON-VEG. It’s my kind of place. And at the core of the distinctive cuisines of South India is thali, the ubiquitous set lunch.
Most Indian food in North America is Northern, usually Punjabi. It is heavy with animal products and, while veg options are always available, they are often an afterthought. South Indian food, on the other hand, is centered around a vegetarian diet featuring plenty of rice, lentils, and fresh fruits and vegetables—the very combination preferred by many American vegetarians. While often quite spicy, South Indian food is lighter and more fragrant than that found in the North, and it features tropical ingredients like coconut milk and palm sugar that are foreign to northern cuisines.
In the past decade, thousands of educated workers from South India (in particular Bangalore, in the state of Karnataka) have moved to North American tech hotbeds like New York, Toronto, and the San Francisco Bay Area. This migration has brought with it a blossoming of restaurants catering to Southerners looking for a taste of home—a whole new world of vegetarian restaurants for us to enjoy.
This set lunch is served on the eponymous thali—a round steel platter set down before the eager diner and ringed with small steel bowls containing an array of treats. (The platter is sometimes lined with a piece of banana leaf, or in more traditionally-minded Malaysian thali restaurants, the platter is done away with entirely in favor of a placemat-sized section of banana leaf.) The bowls are usually arranged from lighter, more liquid dishes at the bottom right—the place nearest the eating hand—becoming thicker and heavier—then colder—in a counterclockwise ring.
In the center of the thali, and the anchor of the meal, is a pile of steamed rice and a papadam—a crunchy lentil wafer that begins your thali experience.
Thali always features rasam, a spicy lentil soup that you can sip or eat with your papadam, and sambar, the classic South Indian lentil stew, redolent with the delicate flavor of kari leaves. Pour this onto your rice and eat them together.
You’ll also find a couple of vegetable dishes. This is where thali typically varies the most: it could include a hearty mushroom curry, a coconut and cauliflower dish, or stewed onions and okra, among thousands of other options. And you’ll also find curd (yoghurt) and a dessert, such as a creamy pudding, that is usually dairy-based and seasoned with cardamom, saffron, or rose (South Indian diners often begin the meal with this sweet treat).
Lurking somewhere on the right side of you thali you’ll find an innocuously small piece of “pickle.” Usually lime or green mango pickled in a fiery red sauce, small dabs or nibbles are enough to put an exclamation point at the end of every mouthful.
While there’s nothing wrong with eating your thali with a fork or spoon (indeed, many Indian diners at North American thali joints have adopted this local implement), true enjoyment is said to come only when one eats with one’s hands. Or hand, actually—use only the right one, as the left is reserved for bodily maintenance. Thali places in India (and a few in America) have sinks and soap right out in the dining area for your to clean your five-fingered utensils before and after eating.
There is a considerable amount of technique involved— it’s not just a question of shoving food into your mouth. Tearing bread with one hand requires some practice, and even the act of forming a ball of rice and curry and pushing it into your mouth with the tip of your thumb might not come naturally. Indeed, the official line, stemming from India’s Vedic tradition, is that hands afford an additional sensory experience—the feel of the food—as the first step in its enjoyment, before even smell and taste. Indeed, I can remember very well a particular thali I enjoyed in Cochin, in Kerala. The pickle was so spicy that hours afterwards I could still feel the sting in my fingertips.
Don’t be fooled by the small portion sizes of each element on your thali—there are so many that you’ll usually find the meal quite filling. One of the traditional appeals of the small portions is nothing goes to waste, but if you are still hungry, you can ask for more of any specific dish. In India, servers work the room with elegant stainless steel buckets of sambar and rice, and you may see this in North America as well. If you don’t, just ask for more of anything you want—but don’t waste food, and resist the urge to eat to excess. There are so many wonderful flavors and varied dishes to choose from that gluttony can sneak up on you without warning.
If this all sounds like a complicated and fussy way of eating, don’t worry—enjoying thali is first and foremost a pleasure. The many delicious and exotic treats you’ll find on a South Indian thali are nourishing to both body and sprit, and the arrival of this cuisine on our shores is cause for celebration. Find it and dig in!
South Indian in North America
If you can’t make it to India, you can still find lovely thali in North America, thanks to the efforts of burgeoning South Indian communities.
Check out “Curry Hill” around Lexington and 27th in Manhattan. This area has seen an explosion of South Indian restaurants and great thali is a given here. Chennai Garden there is a favorite, one of the area’s kosher South Indian vegetarian restaurants—a charming trend in the New York melting pot.
Toronto’s longstanding diversity of Indian communities makes the city perfect habitat for thali. The Udupi Palace there, with its hard marble floors, sink in the dining area, and bare fluorescent bulbs, (not to mention the sari-clad diners) is so authentic that it feels as though you’ve been teleported to Tamil Nadu even before the sumptuous food arrives.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, visit the Udupi Palace in Berkeley (there are several across North America, although not all are owned by the same people) or any of the restaurants along the Camino Real in Sunnyvale for the real thing. San Francisco’s Kaleva features a more pan-Indian thali with truly well-crafted curries.
While the sacredness of the cow in India sometimes makes it hard for those wishing to avoid ghee, vegans are no strangers in North American thali restaurants—just let your server know in advance.
And don’t forget—thali is just the beginning of South Indian cuisine. While you’re at any one of these restaurants try a dosa, uttappam, vada, idli or other treat; you’re sure to keep coming back again and again.
Vegetarianism in South India
The culture of South India dates back thousands of years, beyond recorded history. While waves of invaders from Central Asia transformed the North again and again, South India maintains a direct cultural link with the foundations of Indian civilization. The Vedas, Yoga, Ayurveda, and Hinduism all date back into the mists of time there. And vegetarianism is one of these cultural building blocks.
Harming animals is considered spiritually polluting—engendering a karmic burden—so, quite logically, eating animals is avoided by hundreds of millions of people. In some situations, eating meat could even lead to people being shunned by their communities. This has given rise to the most highly developed and diverse vegetarian cuisine on the planet, with regional variations and specialties that make an exploration of South Indian cuisine a lifelong project.
South India is also the center of India’s outsourcing and technology boom, with Bangalore the hub. Unfortunately, among upwardly-mobile young people in this area, meat eating—even beef eating, considered for generations the most ghastly blasphemy by devout Hindus—has become trendy. (This, of course, is exactly the opposite of the trendy appeal of vegetarianism among hip young people in North America.)
Vegetarianism in India has many shades and variations, depending on region, history, and philosophy. Most Indian vegetarians also do not drink alcohol, and some won’t eat root vegetables or onions and garlic. Many of these variations, and the distinctive cuisines that go with them, are beginning to appear in North America as well. Look for Jain or Brahmin restaurants to experience some of these less-typical flavors.
“Laxmi’s Vegetarian Kitchen”
by Laxmi Hiremath
Harlow & Ratner, 1995
Laxmi Hiremath grew up in India but didn’t learn how to cook until she moved to Ohio. So she understands both the way this food should taste and the limitations in ingredients and kitchen equipment faced by North American home cooks. Her book is the best introduction to vegetarian Indian cooking I’ve seen.
I like my thali hotter and less salty than Laxmi Hiremath. There are as many variations on these recipes as there are kitchens in India, so adjust to make them your own.
You can find nearly all the ingredients for thali in North American grocery stores, but you’ll have to look harder for a few things like kari leaves and amchur powder. Visit Indian grocery stores or look online—it’s worth it.
Don’t have time to make all these recipes for a complete thali? Try them one at a time but double the recipes and keep leftovers for an effortless weekend thali.
4 medium tomatoes
3 cups water
1 cup cooked yellow lentils
3/4 cup grated onion
2 teaspoons crushed garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons sambar powder (see below)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
5 whole cloves, ground
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
chopped fresh cilantro
Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for two minutes, the plunge in cold water. Peel and chop. Combine with half the water in a medium saucepan and cook on medium-high for ten minutes. Transfer to a blender and purée. Whisk the lentils until smooth and add to the tomato purée.
Combine the onion, garlic, sambar powder, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and cayenne in a small bowl. Mix well. Wrap these seasoning in a small piece of cheesecloth and tie into a secure bundle. Return the tomato purée to the saucepan, add the spice bundle and the remaining water, and simmer 20 minutes on medium heat. Discard the spice bundle. Just before serving, season with salt to taste, and top with cilantro. If you like, you can also add some ghee or unsalted butter.
2 1/2 cups cooked yellow lentils
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup chopped tomato
1/2 cup cauliflower, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 cup sliced carrots
1/4 cup green beans, cut into 1/2 inch lengths
1/2 teaspoon tamarind concentrate dissolved in 1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon sambar powder (see below)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
15 fresh kari leaves
2 dried red chilies, stemmed and broken
Combine the lentils, water, tomato, cauliflower, carrots, and green beans in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to medium and cook, covered, about ten minutes. Add the tamarind liquid, sambar powder, cayenne, salt, sugar, and cilantro. Cover and simmer for ten minutes. Transfer to a large tureen, cover, and set aside.
Heat the oil in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the mustard and cumin seeds. When the seeds sizzle and splutter, immediately add the turmeric, kari leaves, and chilies. Stir for half a minute, remove, and pour over the sambar. Garnish with a sprinkling of cliantro.
2 teaspoons dry yellow chick peas
1 teaspoon dry white gram beans
1 teaspoon dried yellow split peas
1/4 teaspoon peppercorns
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1/2 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 tablespoon raw long-grain white rice
1-inch stick cinnamon, broken
20 fresh kari leaves
1 or 2 dried red chilies
Preheat a large skillet and add all the ingredients. Toast over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is aromatic and the rice grains are lightly browned (about six minutes).
Cool the mixture slightly, then grind it to a fine powder. Store in an airtight glass jar.
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 small onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
1 or 2 fresh hot green chilies, stemmed and slit lengthwise
1 pound fresh okra, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon flaked coconut, either sweetened or not
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat until it ripples when the pan is tilted. Toss in the cumin, onion, garlic, chilies, and okra. Stir and fry until the okra is no longer sticky and the edges start to brown, about 8 minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium. Stir in the peanuts and garam masala. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and lemon juice, toss to mix, and transfer to a heated serving dish. Serve with a sprinkle of coconut.
(garbanzo bean curry)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece fresh ginger, crushed
6 whole cloves, ground
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon amchur (mango powder) or 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 large tomato, coarsely chopped
10 cilantro sprigs
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon ghee or oil
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1 large can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 medium red or white onion, peeled and sliced
1 lime or lemon cut into wedges
Heat the oil in a medium skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat until it ripples when the pan is tilted. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger and cook until the onion is lightly browned, about 4 minutes.
Add the cloves, coriander, cumin, amchur (but not lime juice yet), and cayenne. Stir and cook 1 minute. Add the tomato, lime juice (if using), and cilantro. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, unitl the tomato is soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a blender or food processor, add 1/4 cup water, and process until smooth.
Heat the ghee or oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Add the turmeric and onion-spice purée. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant (2 to 3 minutes). Add the beans and salt. Reduce the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer 15 minutes. Garnish with cilantro sprigs and slices of onion and lemon wedges.
1/4 cup raw basmati rice
1 quart milk or soy milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons chopped pistachios
1 tablespoon chopped dates
1/2 teaspoon rose water
Wash the rice in several changes of water; drain well. Place the rice and milk in a large heavy skillet or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to medium and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the rice is tender (about 15 minutes).
Stir in the sugar, pistachios, and dates. Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the pudding is think and reduced by half, 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the rose water. Serve warm or chilled.
Gregory Dicum lives in San Francisco and eats thali with his hand, in the manner of his South Indian ancestors.
Gregory Dicum is the author of “Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air” and co-author of “The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop.” He writes “Green,” a bi-weekly column for SFGate, the online edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, and has contributed to the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Harper’s, Travel + Leisure, Gastronomica, and Decanter, among others.