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A Food Lover’s Guide to Traditional Indian Thali

When we think of contemporary British-Indian cuisine, we often think of selecting a few curries from the menu, perhaps a main dish each, accompanied by rice, naan and maybe some bhajis on the side. This experience has become a staple of UK restaurant culture and a firm favourite amongst spice loving diners across the world.

But what if you’re looking for a bit more variety when it comes to Indian food, a dish that encapsulates the true breadth of Indian cooking as well as reflecting its deep culinary tradition?

What if you were able to create or experience a dish which comes with not just one or two curries and condiments, but potentially twelve or more? Welcome to the wonderful world of traditional Indian thali.

What Is Thali?

At first glance, thali will often appear as a large plate (or banana leaf in its most traditional form!) containing rice, poppadoms, and sometimes bread, surrounded by a delectable assortment of dals, sambars, chutneys, curds, curries, chilis, and more.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of this culinary gem, as well as what a thali might contain, how it’s often eaten, some health and dietary benefits, and how you can experience it yourself no matter where you live.

Indian Thali

A Brief History of Thali

Not just a gastronomic tour-de-force, thali forms a deep and vital part of traditional Indian cuisine and culture, a dining experience beloved by millions, and found everywhere from casual street eateries and roadside hotels to wedding celebrations and religious feasts.

Food historians and cultural observers often deem it to have originated in the south of the continent. This is an area which, due to its damp and fertile landscape, has historically revolved more around rice production than the comparatively arid north, where traditional diets may have contained more bread and wheat staples.

Thali is now an affordable meal for many Indian families, with restaurants up and down the country catering to the working and middle-classes. However, its numerous dishes and variety of condiments may have had their origins in the kitchens of wealthy households, whose methods for demonstrating their affluence and power would include serving an impressive variety of dishes and meals to their guests.

Some have theorised that, with the dawning of Indian independence in 1947 and a broad migration of many families from rural settings to towns and cities, restaurants started producing affordable meals that mirrored the breadth and excitement previously enjoyed solely by the upper classes.

History of Thali

What’s in a Thali?

Exciting, eye-catching, varied, filling, and dietarily complex, thali has evolved over generations to stand as an emblem of India’s vast culinary range, sophistication, and taste.

So what does this complex and infinitely varied dish actually contain? As you may have guessed, the specific dishes landing on your plate will depend on your restaurant, your region, your chef, or what’s fresh and available on the day, which only adds to the excitement of the meal.

However, as a general rule, you can expect a varied and healthy spread which will likely include the following:


Rice is a guaranteed staple and usually the central pillar around which all the other dishes are served – you’re not going to find a thali without this at its core. If you’re in a restaurant, they may even top it up for free if you run out!

Many thalis also come with traditional Indian breads, such as chapati, paratha, or puri.



Dals and sambar are commonly included, the latter often referring to a slightly more watery lentil soup or stew.

Chana (chick peas), mung beans, black-eyed beans and other pulses may also find their way on to your plate, adding protein and earthiness to your meal.


Vegetable Dish

Depending on what’s produced locally, you could find curried potatoes, okra, green beans, tomatoes, or a seasonal mix. These will often be lightly spiced, cooked in mustard seeds or chili, and shallow fried. Some may also come in richer, thicker sauces.

Vegetable Dish


A condiment made from herbs, spices, and vegetables, sometimes sweet but not necessarily the same as the mango chutney you may be used to from the supermarket or local curry house! They can also take the form of tomato relishes, ground peanut garnishes, or spicy onion based flavouring.



A curd or yoghurt based condiment, cooling the palette and balancing out some of the heat elsewhere on the plate. Raita can also have a delectable sourness to it as a result of fermentation, adding another taste dimension to the meal.



The raw ingredient will vary from region to region and can be fruit or vegetable based. The sharpness and sourness can lift some of the earthier flavours elsewhere on the dish.

Limes, mangos, and lemons are common, as well as fresh chilis and peppers.

Pachranga Achaar Pickle


A crispy, savoury snack commonly made from lentils and rice flour, adding texture to the meal, as well as something to scoop up your rice, dal and chutneys with if you so wish.



The aim of a thali is to provide the diner with a full sweep of flavours and taste sensations, so after savoury lentils, sour curd, sharp pickles, and crispy papad, it’s time for something sweet.

This will often come in the form of rice or coconut based sides or, in some regions such as India’s western coast, a buttermilk or sol kadi – a refreshing dessert-like drink made from fruit and coconut milk.


Regional Variations

Thali, both in terms of its overall style and its individual dishes, can vary a lot depending on where it’s being made and the local vegetables and fruits available to the chefs. The versatility and breadth of the dish also means that, over the years, it has soaked up and assimilated food traditions from all over India.

Your thali will often reflect the geography and tastes of the region it’s being cooked in, or the tastes and traditions of the people preparing it! If you’re making it yourself, you can choose which elements to include depending on your own dietary preference.

In South India, often seen as the birthplace of the thali tradition, the dish can frequently incorporate a greater range of sour and tangy elements, including the spicy ‘rasam’ soups with their use of tamarind and chilli. Traditional South Indian thalis are also more frequently vegetarian based and will often provide flavour, depth, and variety without resorting to meat.

Thali’s found along the coastal regions can, as expected, incorporate seafood and fish into their spread, with regions such as Goa specialising in delicious, lightly stewed fish dishes in coconut broths.

Northern-style thali, such as those found in Gujarat or Rajasthan, can often include a wider variety of dishes and will not always be solely vegetarian based. They may include curries and condiments more instantly recognisable to modern Western palettes – indeed, much popular British-Indian cuisine has its roots in Northern Indian cooking.

How Do You Eat Thali?

If you want to experience this dish in the most traditional way possible, try tucking in using your hands. Roll rice up into manageable chunks with your right hand and dip it, smother it, or mix it with whichever sauce or condiment catches your eye. In India, it is often said that an important part of eating is being able to feel the food with your fingers as well as your taste buds!

Before the modern era, thali would have been served on biodegradable banana leaves, and indeed you will still find thali served like this in many restaurants across India. Otherwise, your meal is likely to arrive on a round plate, large enough to contain the rice, breads, and papads at the centre, whilst also leaving space for the legions of condiments, sauces and curries round the side.

Most of these are likely to be served in small round bowls called katoris, though some thali will come in a purpose built box or tray complete with various compartments for the various dishes.

If you want to recreate this authentic experience at home, you can purchase a range of traditional thali trays and serving dishes from Karahi Shop, guaranteed to impress your family and guests!

Do you have to eat the dishes in a certain order? It depends on who you ask! Of course, there’s no one way to eat thali, and we’d recommend getting stuck into whichever dish you like first and switching between them all without holding back for fear you might be ‘doing it wrong’!

However, some have recommended progressing through the taste profiles in a more orderly fashion. You might wish to start with earthier, milder flavours (lentils and vegetable dishes) before continuing through increasingly spicy, chilli based sides, before finishing off the savoury elements with a tangy, spicy dish such as ‘rasam’. Finally, you may wish to top-off your meal with a cooling curd and sweetener.

How Do You Eat Thali

Is Thali Healthy?

Thali has developed over time into a varied, complex, and affordable meal that can nourish and sustain millions of working families. It has organically evolved into a dish that covers a wide variety of taste profiles, food types, and cooking methods, with vegetables, pulses, herbs and spices taking centre stage.

Nutritionists have also pointed to how various aspects of thali, including its curd-based elements and its warming spices, are good natural aids to digestion, as well as holding anti-inflammatory properties.

Thali is also seen to be well aligned with traditional ayurvedic theories of nutrition and health, including the Six Taste Theory, which talks about how meals should balance the body’s various energies by ensuring they contain the full spectrum of taste elements.

Thali is said to have evolved into a complete representation of the six ayurvedic tastes – sweet, sour, salt, pungency, bitterness, and astringency – resulting in a meal that balances the mind and body.

Meal Ideas for a Traditional Thali Experience

In some of the UK’s larger cities you won’t need to go far to find restaurants cooking and serving thali the traditional way.

But if you aren’t able to make your way to a restaurant, or would prefer to bring this dish into the comfort of your own dining room, you’re also in luck. Not only are the necessary spices and raw ingredients available in many supermarkets or Asian grocery stores, but you can also present your dishes using traditional, purpose-built thali trays and serving vessels.

Don’t be put off by what can seem like an intimidating array of dishes to prepare! You don’t necessarily need to serve 15 different bowls in order to provide your guests with a full thali flavour experience. Why not start with a few smaller menus and build up from there?

Here are some ideas to get you off the ground and remember – the magic of thali is in the way flavours can mix and match, so don’t be afraid to experiment or swap dishes in and out depending on your personal taste or what you have available in the larder.

Menu 1 (South Indian Veg Style)

Steamed Rice

Cabbage Palya: Finely shredded cabbage cooked with light spices and moong beans

Toor Dal Sambar: Pigeon-pea lentils cooked with fresh spices and vegetables

Chana Sundal: A chickpea salad made with curry leaves, mustard seeds and chilli

Tomato Rasam: A tangy, sour lentil soup made with tomatoes, tamarind and chilli

Thayir Saddam or Curd Rice: Cooked rice prepared with cooling yoghurt, coriander, and garnished with pomegranate seeds or peanuts

Menu 2 (North Indian Veg Style)

Basmati Rice

Dal Fry: Traditional curried lentils

Palak Paneer: Spinach with Indian cottage cheese

Chana Masala: Chickpeas stewed in rich, spiced gravy

Lime Pickle: A traditional Indian pickle made with limes, sour and tangy

Boondi Raita: Cooling yoghurt and fried gram flour balls with spices

Menu 3 (Meat or Fish Style)

Jeera Rice: Rice cooked with cumin seeds

Shahi Chicken: A version of korma – creamy chicken cooked in a nutty, coconut sauce

Goan Fish Curry: A traditional fish curry from Kerala in South India, light, aromatic and coconut based

Dal Makhani: A thick, creamy dal made with whole black lentils, kidney beans, and butter

Mysore Rasam: Spicy, sour lentil soup cooked with toor dal and mixed spices

Mung Bean Salad: Sprouted mung beans prepared with limes, salt and chilli powder

Shrikhand: A sweet curd-based dish made with yoghurt, saffron and almonds

Menu 4 (Combination Banquet)

Vegetable Pilau Rice: Rice cooked with vegetables and coriander-coconut spice base

Papad: Crispy lentil or rice based wafer

Chapati: Traditional Indian flatbread cooked on the stove top, cheap and easy to make

Aloo Gobi: Potato and cauliflower cooked in a spiced gravy

Pumpkin Curry: Curry made with pumpkins and brown chickpeas

Dal Fry: Traditional curried lentils

Kachumber Salad: Cucumber salad with tomatoes, onions, lemon, salt and chilli

Mysore Rasam: Spicy, sour lentil soup cooked with toor dal and mixed spices

Green Chutney: A light and refreshing chutney made from mint, coriander, garlic and lemon

Thayir Saddam or Curd Rice: Cooked rice prepared with cooling yoghurt, coriander, and garnished with pomegranate seeds or peanuts

Raw Turmeric Pickle: A simple and very healthy pickle made from fresh turmeric

Gudanna or Jaggery Rice: A rice dessert dish made with cashews, raisins, sweet coconut, and cardamom

Masala Chaas: Refreshing and lightly spiced yogurt-based drink, perfect to finish off the meal!

Tuck In!

So there we have it – roll your sleeves up and tuck in! Don’t be put off by the number of dishes that can be made or the infinite combinations that are available – start small and build up from there. Alternatively, get some friends round and tackle a huge banquet all in one go!

Experiment with swapping dishes in and out and you’ll soon come to realise that thali provides you with a breadth and depth of flavour, texture, and ingredients rarely matched by any other dining experience.