If it’s good for the Chinese President, it’s good for me. A few years ago, sitting on the Sabarmati river front, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan were served a full-blown unlimited Gujarati thali. Non-Gujaratis suddenly heard of dishes that were traditional fare in any Gujarati household. Ringana Methi nu Shak (eggplant cooked with fenugreek leaves), Gujarati Khatti Mithi Daal (sweet and sour lentil) Bhindi Sambhariya (ladyfingers’ curry), Methi na Thepla and more. Rare in most parts of the country, the Gujarati thali is quite time-honoured in Mumbai and, of course, in most cities of Gujarat.
The vegetarian Gujarati thali is probably that perfect meal. It’s a pastiche of textures and tastes, carefully harmonised with constituents sweet and sour, salty and astringent, arranged and served together to create the perfectly balanced meal. A carefully deliberated meal that includes a calibration of staples like lentils, pulses, rice, wheat, millet, barley and fortified with vegetables and then dairy, such as milk, curd and buttermilk. With Farsaan served as an accompaniment.
Not being a huge vegetable lover, it took me a little time to get used to those unusually sweet flavours that a Gujarati thali is known for. I had never tasted daal so sweetened by jaggery. It took me a little time, but with rice, ghee and green chilli pickle the sweet daal had an enduring character of its own. But all Gujarati food is not sweet. Gujarati cuisine could be divided into four parts: Kathiawari, Surti, Gujarati and Kutchi. While the basic Gujarati food (Daal-Bhaat-Rotli-Shaak) remains the same, there are subtle differences. Kathiawari food uses more red chilli and is spicier while Surti food favours green chilli, garlic and coriander. Jowar and rice are more popular in Surti cuisine while the Kathiawari prefer Bajra Rotlas and Bhakri.
Best Gujarati Thali in Mumbai
Kalbadevi in Mumbai, for me, is the thali heaven. As you drive past the art-deco gates of Sikka Nagar and nudge yourself into the squeeze that is CP Tank. Or optionally, approach Kalbadevi from the opposite end, taking a left turn on the historical Princess Street. There are two establishments that are renowned for their Gujarati thali, for several decades.
First, there is Shree Thaker Bhojanalay. Established in 1945, this slightly posh air-conditioned Gujarati and Rajasthani thali restaurant has a cult following. As soon as you sit at the table, a glistening platter with a zillion katoris is placed in front of you and almost immediately, choreographed through hand signals, a parade of waiters start loading the plate and empty bowls with an assortment of pickles, chutneys, vegetables, daals, pulses, rotis, khichdi, sweets and Farsaan. Vegetables like the usual Surti Undhiyu, Rasawala Aloo to name a few, or the classics like Turiya Patra nu Shaak (a spicy, tangy and sweet combination of ridge gourd and steamed Patra) or Sambhariya Ringan nu Shaak (stuffed brinjal with peanuts and spices). Accompanying these vegetables, daals and pulses are hot phulkas with ghee, deep-fried fluffy pooris, jowar or bajra bhakris, puran polis or rice and khichdi. And there are tonnes of Farsaan. Sweets are served together with the meal, and there is often Shrikhand or Aamras when in season or some hackneyed Bengali mithai. Of course, like all thali joints, it’s all unlimited and you can have as many helpings as can have.
The other thali establishment is Friends Union Joshi Club. It’s over 100 years old and is sequestered on the first floor of a forgettable chawl on the main Kalbadevi Road. Unlike Shree Thaker, Joshi’s is a simple, home-style eatery. You sit at tables for two, next to each other as if in school. If lucky, you may be able to sit facing a large window with bright light and the sounds of traffic filtering in. The stainless steel utensils are well-used, and promptly filled. It’s usually one Gujarati-style sweet daal, another spicier one, or maybe a dahi kadi. Four kinds of vegetables out of which one is sprouted pulse and one a staple potato preparation. There could be bhindi or cabbage or tendli or potato-tomato. Of course, no meal can be complete without Farsaan, and often you have freshly fried Batata Wada, Ghughra and steamed Dhokla. Also served is a coarsely cut salad, couple of chutneys and pickles. Hot phulkas with ghee, bajra roti with jaggery and ghee, Biscuit Bhakri with ghee, rice with ghee, khichdi with ghee or pulav with even more ghee. This food has the simplicity of a home-cooked meal, and leaves you feeling light and satisfied.
The Best Thalis in Gujarat
But what better place to eat a Gujarati thali than Gujarat. My favourite thali in Vadodara is, of course, Mandap at the Hotel Express. They do a great job and what I have most enjoyed is the hot bhajiyas in the monsoon and the lilva kachoris in the winter. Amdavad (or Ahmedabad) has the iconic Vishalla. Outdoor and designed like a village, you go there for the atmosphere as well as for the Farsaan, multitude of pickles and my favourites, like Leelu Shaak and Methi na Thepla. Then there is Rajwadu for a blend of Marwadi and Kutchi dishes and I’m sure there are many more.
For me, the traditional Gujarati thali is like an abridged version of the Encyclopedia of Gujarati Cuisine. All the flavours on one plate. The mix of mustard seed, turmeric, red chillies, cumin and coriander and a combination of garlic, red chillies and salt pounded together. The unusualness of food being sweet, salty, and spicy all at the same time, that’s Gujarat’s distinctive vegetarian cuisine all on one plate.
Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. Views are personal.