The chances of coming across a good South Indian thali in a good South Indian (Udipi grade chilly) restaurant are higher than finding a good Indo-Chinese meal. There is something so very satisfying about an ‘unlimited thali’ that one sets one’s heart on it- now, as if one is going to eat unlimited amounts of food, but one still falls prey to this reverse psychology trick played on us suspecting but perversely willing patrons.
The deciding factor for the thali vs idly/dosa/wada gang contest is the poriyal and the poori or ‘chapati’ (never have chapatis with a thali- not VFM) One asks the waiter, who is either very obsequious or very indifferent “what’s the poriyal?” If it’s beans poriyal or beetroot poriyal – and if he says ‘poori garam hai’ go ahead and order those humongous thalis!
When the thalis arrive and everyone is settled down with sufficient number of pooris and after a head count of all the katoris in your own thali and peering into each others thalis (and also into those on the neighbouring tables- just in case one suspect some vendetta on the part of the waiters) to make sure no one is missing any goodies, the first thing one digs one’s folded ‘poori- shovel’ into is the poriyal followed by the kootu… the rasam can wait to cool a bit or it will scald the roof of your mouth.
Crunch on some poppadums before turning your attention to that snobbishly aloof little dish of some coloured rice, which surprisingly turns out to be the Caspian caviar (ayyayo!) of the thali. This dish is suitable for trading across the table, provided you barter something equitable and interesting like the sweet dish. Vegetables floating in the sambar get picked up next, especially if there is a small log of drumstick floating around. The little katori of tomato, onion, yoghurt raita is so unnecessary that one hardly looks at it. The pickle, unless it is the still- smarting- with- the -rai -and –methi- dressing (down) kind of fresh pickle, is not worth its salt.
The North Indian curry thrown in for a good measure and in a move to placate all palates tends to surprise you. It either knocks you over by good quality and authenticity or make you gag on the curry leaves in a pompous sounding royal or shahi something paneer or rajma or chana masala.
One has to keep an eye on the poori man as he doesn’t particularly want to let you make your ‘man ki murad poori’. Satisfied that everyone is not cheated out of the unlimited pooris, you can turn to the kootu and relish the various textures of the dal, sprout, vegetable, coconut and the mild spices. This is the white collar dish of the thali.
The green chillies in the food hit you on the tip of your tongue, the red chillies in the middle and the pepper corns at the back of your throat, so be careful, keep the individually set katori of yoghurt with a ring of froth around it handy (why is it so sweet?)
Time to hail the waiter for rice and boy! is he very generous with rice, spading it onto your thali with the energy of a steam locomotive driver. What a cheapo! But rice is cheap. Don’t let this rice waiter go away before he finds and escorts the ghee man to your table so you can extract your pound of flesh- the drizzle of ghee onto the rice. The trick to extract the maximum out of the ghee-man is to fix him with a daring stare so he gets mesmerised and doesn’t say ‘say when’. After all, you need all the ghee to salve your burnt mouth and prepare for more eventualities, if any. Finish up your rasam-rice and sambar-rice, don’t bother about thair sadam as the thair is too sweet.
Talking of sweet- you will be lucky if the ‘sweet dish’ isn’t too sweet and luckier still if there are two varieties. Kesari- doesn’t have to be so-pro BJP, you know, or payasam – don’t quite understand the need to have a dot -dot (sooji) line- line (vermicelli) and ball- ball (sago) cocktail of floatsam. Maybe I should have spoken about the fruit salad first- why the vanilla plus cardamom plus fruit flavour triveni sangam? Well, thank your stars this isn’t payasam with fruit and finish your plate and attack the sunf and misri (is it too much to ask for paan?)
Oh, my ramblings… forgot about the poriyal. So… a poriyal is a vegetable dish, lightly cooked and tempered with mustard seeds, urad dal, hing, red or green chillies and seasoned with lots and lots of coconut. My most favourite poriyal is the beans poriyal, made with string beans or green beans – in that order of preference.
¼ kilo string beans or green beans, stringed washed and chopped finely and cooked al dente covered in a microwave with a tablespoon of water for not more than 5 minutes
2-3 tbsp fresh coconut, grated fine
1 tbs split white urad dal
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
A large pinch of hing
6-7 curry leaves
2-3 dry red chillies (or more)
1 tbsp oil (coconut oil, if you like)
Salt to taste
Heat the oil in a kadhai and add the urad dal. Even before the dal turns golden, add the mustard seeds, so that by the time the seeds crackle, the dal is perfectly golden brown in colour. Add the chillies and fry them for a few seconds. Then add the curry leaves, hing and turmeric. Add the cooked beans and mix well and stir fry it till the water is absorbed. Add salt and coconut, check the taste and turn off the heat.
Serve with hot sambar and rice or with poori or chapati.