Kerala Cuisine - The Elemental Feast

Originally from Hindi, the word Thali translates to a plate or tray on which food is served, now adapted to mean a meal consisting of an assortment of small meat or vegetable dishes alongside accompaniments all served on the same plate or banana leaf – an elemental feast for one! What makes up Thali depends on the region and for this we have chosen to focus on Kerala in South India, as Thali is usually based around a large portion of rice, more common to Southern dishes.

Kerala Cuisine - The Elemental Feast

Photo of Thali served at the Purity Hotel, Lake Vembanad, Kerala, India, taken by Pauline Chardin.

The purpose of Thali is to provide all six recognised flavours on a single plate: sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy. Traditional food serving customs in Kerala entail that a proper meal is a balance of these flavours, so often fruit is also served at the end. Thali is a great option for those who want to branch out and try other types of curry without giving up the chance to enjoy their favourite butter chicken dish.

Kerala’s cuisine is characteristically based around seafood as the state adopts most of India’s south-west coastline, but for those who don’t enjoy edible sea creatures, the next most commonly found option is vegetarian. Coconut milk and oil for cooking is prevalent in many dishes and the crispy lentil discs known as papadums or the rice batter and coconut milk pancakes called appam are usually eaten in place of heavier breads like naan.

A Kerala Thali has a few defining techniques to serving and eating that should be followed for authenticity. A meal should have sweet dishes on the lower, right hand side of the tray or banana leaf and then the other dishes follow. Knives and forks are not traditionally used for eating Thali in Kerala, instead, you eat with your right hand, reserving your left for personal hygiene, drinking water and scooping curries from communal bowls if it has been served in this way. If you are left-handed, you may be excused.

Advice to follow when eating Thali:

- Wash your hands! Many restaurants in India will have a basin at the back for you to wash your hands in.

- Scoop curries from communal bowls with a spoon onto your own plate or banana leaf.

- Portion off a bit of rice and mix each curry with that as you go to eat it. Start with the vegetables in both curried and dry form.

- Grab a papadum or break off a bit of appam by twisting your fingertips, then combine it with your fingers and lower your head towards the plate to eat it.

- Start with the lentil and vegetable sambhar, then chilli and tamarind based vathal kozhambu curry before tomato and pepper rasam. Leave the yoghurt until last to cool your mouth and help with digestion.

- The sweet, traditional dessert or fruit is eaten to finish and if there is a bowl of water next to your plate, wash your hands in this and dry with a napkin.

Now you know how to eat a Thali like you would in Kerala, head over to our recipe section and find some curries to share!

By Julie Johnson.