Thursday, May 10, 2012

Tasty Thali in Tamil Nadu

The southern Indian region of Tamil Nadu is a rich tapestry of soaring temple gateways, vivid green rice paddies, and towns abuzz with rickshaws, bullock carts, bicycles, and bustling humanity. As the majority of the devout population foregoes meat for religious reasons, the meal that keeps the Tamils going during a hard-working day is the unlimited vegetarian buffet known as the thali.

The practice of Hinduism has continued unbroken for millennia in Tamil Nadu, predating even the Vedas, the Hindu religion’s oldest sacred texts. Some of the splendid temples with towering tapered gateways that dominate the towns of the region are over 1,000 years old. Tamil Nadu was one of the few places in India not to have been taken over by Mughal invaders during the 16th and 17th centuries, so the Tamils proudly claim to have preserved the purest form of Hinduism.

The Nataraja temple in Chidambaram is one of the most ancient and celebrated shrines in India

Consequently, Hindu beliefs pervade every part of everyday life. The dusty streets are full of shops nestled beneath temple towers selling brightly colored icons of deities, Shiva tridents, and the garlands of vibrant marigolds that are used to bring blessings to temples, homes, offices, and even cars and bicycles.
In the country, trees guard shrines at their bases, while farmers in white dhotis plow fields using oxen – it all seems timeless, until a farmer whips out his cell phone. This is 21st-century India, and he’ll probably be arranging where to meet his friends for a lunchtime thali, a small feast of a meal that has remained remarkably unchanged over the centuries; it is known in southern India simply as “meals.”
Thali can be enjoyed by visitors in one of the ubiquitous hole-in-the-wall restaurants, inside one of the newer chains of eateries, and at some hotels. Each diner is served a pile of rice in the middle of a banana leaf, which is then surrounded by at least half a dozen small metal bowls containing various side dishes.
Occasionally these are ladled straight onto the rice, but either way, waiters continually replenish your meal until you beg for mercy. The accompanying dishes can be almost anything. There are always various vegetable or potato curries and the ever-present trio of sauces – spicy lentil and tomato sambar; thick, chili-pepper-and tamarind-based vathal kozhambu; and soupy rasam, a dhal-based thin sauce with a peppery tang. A papad (poppadom) and some lime pickle are usually thrown into the mix, along with palate-cooling curd and sometimes a sweet dish, such as rice pudding.
It can take outsiders a while to develop the knack of scooping up the messy food using just their right hand, but the trick is to copy the locals and press the mixture of rice and vegetables into a slightly firmer shape with your fingers before lifting it to your mouth.
Eating off a neatly cut banana leaf is a novelty for most of us, but like so many other special things in Tamil Nadu, here it’s just an everyday occurrence.

The 7th-century rock-hewn monuments of Pancha Rathas in Mamallapuram have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage sit

Best Places to Eat Thali

Golden Palate

The beautifully decorated and pleasantly air-conditioned vegetarian dining room of the Mamalla Heritage hotel in Mamallapuram continues the tradition started by the Mamalla Bhavan, the original village restaurant here, which still pulls in the crowds just up the road by the bus stand. At the Golden Palate, however, a little comfort and attentive service is added to the raw experience of thali-eating in most Tamil venues. Although eating with the hand is still the norm, you won’t stick out if you opt for a spoon because many foreigners eat here.
The food itself has the reputation of being some of the best in northeast Tamil Nadu, and it is delicately prepared by a team of knowledgeable chefs. Some of the revolving selection of curry dishes that accompany the thali are not found elsewhere, such as okra with mustard seeds and beans cooked in a bright yellow turmeric sauce. The standard dishes – such as sambar and rasam – are as good as you’ll find anywhere.
104 East Raja Street, Mamallapuram; open 7 AM– 10 PM daily;

The vegetarian meal of thali consists of many small dishes and aromatic sauces served alongside rice on a banana leaf

Also in Tamil Nadu
Sri Ganesh Bhavan (inexpensive) on West Car Street, Chidambaram, backing on to the temple, is a quintessential thali haunt, with just a few creaky tables but superb fresh food. The food-only Aakash Hotel (inexpensive), next to the bus stand in Tiruvannamalai, is another great spot to get a filling banana-leaf buffet. The Saravana Bhavan chain (www.; inexpensive), which has branches throughout Chennai and other parts of the state, is also highly recommended.
Also in India
Mysore’s food-only Hotel RRR (+91 821 244 2878; inexpensive) does some of the best vegetarian thalis in Karnataka, while in Kerala’s state capital, Trivandrum, top thalis can be had at Hotel Arya Niwas (+91 471 233 0789; inexpensive). Delhi, the nation’s capital, has a worthy northern outpost for south Indian fare in the very good Anand (+91 11 2331 3554; inexpensive) on Connaught Lane, a simple place that serves wonderful chicken delicacies.
Around the World
Although the great majority of curry houses outside India serve predominantly north Indian cuisine, there are still fine thalis to be found.
Among over 10,000 Indian restaurants in the UK are six London branches of Chennai Dosa (; inexpensive), where you can find authentic thalis, dosas, and other south Indian snacks.
What Else to Eat
Places that serve thalis tend also to offer a range of tasty south Indian snacks at certain times of day, generally from early morning until around 11 AM and then again from early evening until the restaurant closes. The most delicious snack option is masala dosa, a crispy rice-flour pancake stuffed with a lightly spiced potato and onion curry called sabji. Masala dosa is always accompanied by sambar, one of the sauces that comes with a thali, and coconut chutney. These two side dishes also accompany other popular snacks, such as idli (disk-shaped rice cakes) and vada (lentil and rice-flour savory doughnuts).
Three Days in Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu covers a vast area stretching from the Bay of Bengal coastline to the richly forested mountains of the Western Ghats. The northeastern part of the state, closest to the capital, Chennai, offers an excellent introduction to this cultural wonderland.
DAY ONE : Leave the choking chaos of Chennai immediately by taking a prepaid taxi from the airport to the delightful seaside town of Mamallapuram. Take in the sea breeze beside the iconic shore temples, before strolling through the village past the Arjuna’s Penance bas-relief and on to the “five shrines” Pancha Rathas monument.
DAY TWO : Take a bus via Chengalpattu to Tiruvannamalai, famous for the atmospheric Annamalaiyar temple and the reddish-colored Mount Arunachal, where the revered guru Ramana Maharishi lived in a cave during the 20th century.
DAY THREE : Connect by train to Chidambaram, which is centered on the enormous and imposing Nataraja temple, home to the special dikshitar caste of priests and the holy image of Shiva dancing in the eternal wheel of fire.
Getting to Tamil Nadu
Chennai has an international airport and a comprehensive bus and train network.
Where to stay in Tamil Nadu
Mansoor Lodge (inexpensive) in Chidambaram is a very simple lodge conveniently located right opposite the temple. +91 4144 221 072
Greenwoods Resort (moderate) is a friendly family-run hotel in Mamallapuram near the beach. +91 44 2744 2251
Sparsa Resort (expensive) offers luxury in Tiruvannamalai.

1 comment: