The Curious Case of the South Indian Thali

It’s 7 am on a lazy Sunday morning. The scent of the early morning mist still lingers in the air as the local newspaper boy does his rounds of the colony on his battered yet endearing bicycle. Distant echoes of street hawkers selling vegetables ring in my ear, but in some way I find it strangely soothing. With last night’s sumptuous meal long digested, my stomach growls as though warning me of a being that has been left unfed. The warm cozy mattress calls out to me like a lost child to its parent. Torn between my desire for sweet slumber and a hot breakfast, I shake myself to consciousness and make an early morning walk to the nearby South Indian restaurant.

Not halfway to the place,  I find the aroma of various delicacies filling my senses as I force my way forward with large strides that would make a soldier proud. I take my usual place at the ratty table on the corner of the rustic yet appealing dining area. Like bees to honey, I find that a bunch of people have now swarmed the place, with intentions very similar to mine. I find it hard to concentrate on the haphazardly prepared menu whose half crumpled portions have been religiously joined time and time again after various careful alterations to the prices. Not minding the utter confusion on that piece of paper, I look at the half disinterested face of the waiter and ask for the South Indian Breakfast Thali. For those of you non-Indians who haven’t heard of the term or those of you Indians who’ve probably been living all their life in a remote cave, a South Indian Thali is a blend of famous South Indian dishes served in a round plate (Thali) with limited attention given to your ability to maneuver over and across them. Astutely designed mini containers line the edge of the stainless steel plate and contain a variety of delightfully rich curries that one would take ages to fully discover and decrypt. A pint sized collection of starters, a main course and dessert are hurriedly assembled together with consummate ease.

I anxiously wait at my table, all the while consoling that beast inside me that now demands evasive action. I can’t help but notice the synchronized orchestra of movements all around me as waiters meticulously carry mouth watering delicacies to the prospective customers. How they nonchalantly appear to carry a humanly impossible number of tumblers and cups of hot tea totally bewilder me. They seem to speak an ancient and extinct language of gestures and hardly plausible, abbreviated sentences with grace and aplomb. Everything seems to be in perfect symmetry in the middle of total randomness as there exists an invisible telepathic network between the various departments of this little production line. The conveyor belt seems to churn out an unending line of well refined products as the demand for them steadily increases through the day. A small wonder in todays age of electronic engagement, yet a wonder to be marveled upon nonetheless.

A Traditional South Indian Vegetarian Lunch Thali

At long last the object of my desire seems to appear over the horizon as the waiter approaches my table with a steaming hot Thali carefully balanced on his superhuman palm. The ever familiar sight greets me as I plan to navigate through the crowd of exotic South Indian treats laid out in front of me. I dig into the traditional “Masala Dosa”, and like a man on a mission I move on with a determination that I hope will quieten the now whimpering beast in me. A few minutes later,  I have accomplished my task as only unrecognizable shards of my indulgence remain on the plate. I finish off the formalities that follow any Indian meal as I sip on a hot cup of tea and ponder over my plans for the predictably uneventful weekend.

As I make my way back to my extraordinarily ordinary life, I admire the beauty of Indian cuisine, the love of which is probably my only claim to being an ethnic Indian. And as the road takes a bend to the right, I have a final glance at the modern day sanctuary of proud South Indians whose food, just like their hospitality, leaves everyone supremely content and longing for more.


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