One of the most delightful gifts of Indian food to the world appears in a thali. A thali is a traditional arrangement of delicacies served on a platter, found in almost every region of India. From north to south, east to west, each region varies tremendously, right from the shape of the plate to the manner in which dishes are arranged. In Rajasthan, food is served literally on an enormous round platter, while in Kerala, a sadhya is arranged on a banana leaf. To understand India’s diversity, U.K.-based chef and writer Maunika Gowardhan says, look no further than a thali.
The more you talk to Gowardhan about Indian food, the more you realize how little you know about India’s kaleidoscopic diversity. She has been in food for almost two decades and cooked alongside the likes of Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal. Hundreds of thousands of people read and attempt her recipes: South Asians trying to replicate the food of home and non-South Asians who want a taste of authentic Indian food in their kitchens. Having visited the subcontinent “at least 15 times in the past five years,” she lives her life in a revelry of Indian flavors. Few are more qualified to write the book on it. And she has. “Thali,” an exploration of dishes served on platters across India, is a labor of love created in homage to the diversity in India’s regional cuisine and a taste of home.
SEEMA sat down with Maunika Gowardhan to learn more.
What sort of food did you grow up eating?
I grew up in Mumbai, which is a cosmopolitan city with a diverse amount of regional food. I daresay it’s like the melting pot of food from every part of India. I was born in a Maharashtrian household, so for me, eating puri bhaji or misal pav was really common, but we also had Bohri neighbors, friends who were Parsi, Gujarati, etc. On a Sunday we’d go to my Sindhi friend’s home and have sai bhaji and chawal. I went to fish and meat markets with my mum and dad, and I saw firsthand the way they were haggling, the produce they were getting — and it wasn’t a trend then.
The closest to home was what my mother cooked for us, but my grandmother was an avid cook and she would host some of the best parties. She had a lot of Parsi friends, so offal was always on the table, and we would have things like bheja fry or gurda or kidney masala. There was so much going on from a food perspective for me, that I was able to gauge sensibilities with spices, cuisines, and regions. Then there was the street food, the restaurant food, and the home cooked food. I feel really, really fortunate to have experienced all that as a young girl.
For those of us who don’t cook regularly, your recipes look amazing and accessible. They’re not intimidating at all, and they’re very delicious. What’s your process?
Well, I’m from India and I reminisce about the flavors from my childhood and from my travels across the country. I remember those flavors very distinctively. When I come back, I’m in a kitchen in the west, and when I started 18 or 20 years ago, there was no coriander in Tesco. There was no mint, okra or gram flour, not a single spice aisle in Sainsbury’s. I started from ground level up, I was testing and writing recipes that first had to be accessible for me to eat. For me to feel like I’m not missing home, that it tastes like home, it’s easy to do (I don’t have a tandoor, I don’t have a lot of things), with ingredients that are readily available. I have to strike that balance so finally it tastes like legit Indian food.
When I’m looking at a recipe now, I write all my notes down and check all my notes from my travels, and I break it down, try to make it more accessible and see what I can use. If you look at the Goan Balchao, which is in the book, they use dried shrimp to give it that umami flavor. Where are readers going to go to get dry shrimp in the UK? I’ve tried to use alternatives to get the exact flavor. I’ve added a Bengali fish curry, a jhol. They would crush their mustard and add that to the gravy as well, whereas I want to make it more accessible, so I opted for dijon mustard, which gives a really good kick and a heat in the gravy, a pungency which is what people want.
How did you go about collecting and researching your recipes for “Thali”?
I don’t think “I’m writing a book, let’s research.” Your whole life goes into research, not just when you start writing a book. It can’t work like that. I’ve got to have an inquisitive mind, no matter how many times I go back to India, both to its smaller pockets as well as the bigger cities.
I have a connection and affinity to households and local homes, vendors, streets and people who meet me on a regular basis. The research continues, no matter what.
For instance, I was in Chennai and I visited a friend’s grandmother’s house. She and the lady who was looking after the household were cooking traditional food for us, and she was showing me recipes she first wrote when she was a newly-wedded bride.
How do you explain Indian food to those from the West?
India is a subcontinent five times the size of mainland Europe. Asking “What is Indian food?” is like asking “What is European food?”
Regions differ, the oils they use in regions differ. Every few miles you travel in India, the soil changes. Look at something simple like cumin. Cumin thrives in really dry soil, which is why Rajasthan probably has the most amazing quality of cumin seeds. Understanding coconut oil in the south and mustard oil in the east — understanding these differences is crucial, and I’m really hoping that whether it’s “Thali” or whether it’s any other work I do, that that’s what comes across. Even the audience has grown, it’s become that much smarter. The next best thing I believe to going back to India, is picking up a cookbook and going “I wanna try these recipes!” So it feels like when you taste the curry in the kitchen, it takes you back to the time you actually visited that particular country or region.
There’s a lot of ground to cover when writing about Indian food. How did you manage to encapsulate all this in “Thali”?
The way the chapters in “Thali” are divided is in itself speaks volumes. What we decided to do was to take every element of what a thali includes, like a stir fry, a snack, a salad, a vegetarian curry, non-vegetarian curry, bread, rice, and all of that—and base each chapter on those elements for a start.
At the back of the book, we’ve shared regional thalis. And the idea was to keep the core of regionality within the cookbook and one realizes every region has a different way of plating a thali, how they eat it. Whether they start from left to right or right to left. In Bengal they start with shukto because they need something bitter to cleanse their palate. I’ve eaten a Bohri thaal regularly and you realize how many layers there are. They start with the sweet, then savory and finish with the kharas (the main dish) and the meetha (sweet) and all of that. It was this that spoke so much to me about how diverse we are as a subcontinent. I know for a fact I’ll get many people saying “Oh, you didn’t include this or that!” But there’s only so much you can do with the space you have and I’m hoping fingers crossed that I’ve done it justice.
Thali by Maunika Gowardhan will be on sale February 15, 2022. The book is available for pre-order at leading booksellers.
RAJASTHANI KHADE MASALE KA MURGH
Stir-Fried Chicken with Whole Spices & Green Chillies
I have very fond memories of my visits to Jaipur and Udaipur, tucking into hearty dishes like this. Whole spices are coarsely crushed and fried to infuse the oil, then onions and ginger are cooked with chicken on the bone. This particular dry-fry dish is a personal favourite. The caramelised onions coat the chicken, along with coarsely crushed bay leaves, cinnamon and cardamom, lending a warmth to the final dish. Ideally, it would be served on your thali with plain dal, parathas and some cucumber salad.
- 1 green bird’s-eye chilli 5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 5 cm (2 in) ginger root, roughly chopped
- 4 tbsp vegetable oil or mustard oil
- 300 g (10 1⁄2 oz) white
- onions, thinly sliced
- 150 g (5 oz) tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp ground coriander
- 900 g (2 lb) skinless chicken on the bone, jointed and cut into medium-sized pieces
- salt, to taste
- 1⁄2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tbsp roughly chopped coriander (cilantro), to garnish
- For the whole-spice mix
- 5 cm (2 in) cassia bark
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 1 tsp black peppercorn
- 1 black cardamom pod, whole
- 1 tsp cumin seeds 8 cloves
- First make the whole-spice mix. Add all the ingredients to a pestle and mortar and pound to a coarse mix. You might have some that isn’t crushed completely, but that’s fine. Set aside.
- Put the green chilli, garlic and ginger in a blender and blitz to a smooth, fine paste with a splash of water. Set aside.
- Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat. Add the crushed whole-spice mix and fry for a couple of seconds, then add the onions and fry for 12–14 minutes until they are beginning to soften. Stir every few minutes, making sure they donʼt stick to the bottom of the pan. Add the chilli, ginger and garlic paste and fry for 1–2 minutes. Add a splash of water and scrape off the bottom of the pan; mix well as everything turns a rich, dark colour.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and continue to fry for 3–4 minutes until they begin to soften, mashing them lightly with the back of the spoon. Add the ground coriander and stir, then add the chicken and combine well. Season to taste and cook for 6 minutes, stirring to coat the chicken pieces in the masala.
- Reduce the heat to low, cover and continue cooking for 25 minutes, making sure to stir halfway through. The chicken will begin to release its juices and cook in its own stock, so there is no water required. If it does get too dry, add about 3 tablespoons of water, but only if needed. Turn off the heat and add the garam masala and garnish with fresh coriander. Stir well and serve warm with roti or naan and cucumber raita.
Recipe excerpted with permission from Thali by Maunika Gowardhan, published by Hardie Grant Books, October 2021. (link: https://www.amazon.com/Thali-Joyful-Celebration-Indian-Cooking/dp/1784884588)
Follow Maunika Gowardhan @cookinacurry on Instagram.