A Gujarati thali is like the great big Indian wedding – everything is over the top and in your face. It satiates you but leaves you also looking for the first couch you can find, so you can just put your feet up and relax, and if you are lucky probably even take a quick nap.
Eating a thali is a popular food choice for the locals of Gujarat and that’s why you will find so many Gujarati thali restaurants across all big and small cities in the state. But the thali has also managed to capture a reasonable audience outside the state, though the food that these restaurants serve more often than not, tends to be a mix of Gujarati and Rajasthani cuisine.
I have grown up eating Gujarati food on an everyday basis at home, but even then I would look forward to a thali, because at home you would never make the sheer variety and number of dishes found in a thali all at one go. Everyday food would typically be daal bhaat (lentils with rice), rotli (flatbread) shaak (vegetables).
A Gujarati thali has standard elements that are always found, though within each category the choice of dish varies. Traditional Indian food has always been governed by the seasons and the same goes for Gujarati food. There are subtle nuances that you will notice once you start looking for them.
Gujarati food tends to be on the sweeter side and this sweetness comes from added sugar of jaggery. Sugar is added to balance the saltiness of water found in the state.
A thali meal almost always starts with a serving of kachumber (salad usually a mix of chopped cucumber and tomatoes), along with a variety of chutneys (sauces) – green chutney, which is made of coriander, sweet chutney made of dates and fiery orange garlic chutney (in non Jain versions). A sour and spicy mango pickle or chili pickle is found round the year. If its winter then you might get served lightly sautéed mogri (rat – tail radish), which has a sharp pungent taste. If its summer then you can expect to find pickled amba hardar (white turmeric) which looks like ginger but smells like raw mango, and is considered to be cooling for the body.
Then comes the part I look forward too – the farsan. Farsan are side dishes, often eaten on their own as snacks, which could be steamed or fried. These could be dhokla (an airy steamed dish made from fermented rice and lentil batter), khandvi (thin chickpea flour rolls), handvo (like a savory cake), samosa (fried flour pockets that usually has a stuffing of potatoes), bhajiyas (vegetable fritters) or kachoris (fried flour pockets with a stuffing of lentils or peas). Usually a thali always has 2 or more farsan. If its winter then you can expect to find lilva ni kachori, which is a kachori stuffed with peas or tuver (a vegetable similar to peas), both of which are available abundantly in the winter months.
The more elaborate the thali you can also be served daal dhokli (pieces of roti or flatbread soaked and cooked in lentils with spices) or puran poli (flatbread stuffed with jaggery and served with ghee or clarified butter). All thalis will have about 3 to 4 vegetable dishes, one of which will be a potato preparation, one with paneer (cottage cheese), a green vegetable and a kathor, which is a dish made of dried lentils.
Unlike at home where either daal (a lentil preparation) or kadhi (a curd and chickpea flour based dish) get made, you will find both in a thali. In most South Indian homes sambaar (a lentil and vegetable based dish) and rasam (a tamarind water, lentil and spices based dish) are often made together, but in a Gujarati household its either daal or kadhi, never both together. A thicker daal called lachko daal is often made with kadhi, but that’s very different from Gujarati daal). Rotli, bhakri, bajara no rolto and puri (different kinds of flatbreads) are served to go with the vegetables. Then comes pulav (a rice and vegetable dish), rice and khichdi (a lentil and rice dish). If you have a sweet tooth, a Gujarati thali won’t disappoint you, as usually a meal always have 2 or more mithais (sweet dishes), ranging from doodhpak, gajjar no halwo, moong daal sheero, basundi, shrikhand, etc.
But a thali will never be complete unless its served with chaas (buttermilk). If its summer, then keri no raas (mango juice) and if its winter then undhiyu (a mixed vegetable dish with lentil dumplings) will be the main highlights of the meal.
So next time you step into a restaurant for a Gujarati thali meal hopefully this will help you know what to expect!
This is not an exhaustive description of a thali, but rather what I have deciphered over the years, eating Gujarati food at home and outside.