Many restaurants in Pakistan have added thali to their menu. ( Photo courtesy: Khurram Amin/ Dawn )
Many restaurants in Pakistan have added thali to their menu. ( Photo courtesy: Khurram Amin/ Dawn )

Thali, the multi-flavoured offering of different dishes on a single, usually round and metallic tray, common to most Indian homes, has finally ‘arrived’ in Pakistan and is gaining tremendous popularity among the middle class and elite.

Restaurants and dhabas (roadside eateries) in Karachi, Hyderabad and Islamabad, that have served thali food, have remained low profile till now despite being around for over a decade.

Expressing pleasant surprise at the thalis being around for so long and becoming popular only now, Dawn newspaper writes: “The first is a little-known eatery in the F-10 Markaz that has, believe it or not, been around for at least 13 years. Hyderabadi Chatkhara opened its doors in the year 2003, recalls Mohammad Ashraf, the manager.”

The food is prepared in the traditional way and seasoned according to “Hyderabadi tastes.” Pakistan has ‘imported’ the thali in that not just the method, but the recipes also come from “Hyderabad Deccan”, the name used since the British colonial era for the city in India’s south to distinguish it from the metropolis bearing the same name, located in Pakistan’s Sindh province.

Pakistan has a different food culture and this one is “a Bengali-inspired platter.” The cooks who execute the thali are Bengalis – those who remained in Pakistan or were born after Bangladesh’s separation in 1971.

“The thali reaffirms that variety is the spice of life,” says the newspaper that harks back to “Ayurvedic notions of nutrition that each meal should consist of the six ‘tastes’ of food: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent.”

“The thali is one such tradition that is still alive and kicking, from street-corners to the more well-heeled establishments.

While the contents of this kaleidoscope of flavours vary from region to region, there is always naan or roti and rice as a staple, accompanied by one daal dish, one vegetable dish and – in the non-vegetarian option – one or two meat dishes. These are accompanied by raita, salad and achaar, followed by a dessert.

The outlay is elegantly simple but hugely successful. Referring to Bollywood’s popularity in Pakistan, the newspaper says, “In fact, a whole generation of moviegoers have watched the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and other Bollywood stars eating out of a thali in one film or the other.”

Yet, purveying the thali culture is like a throw-back to “an old classic.” Pakistani cities now boasts a couple of impressive thali joints that are guaranteed to tantalise the taste buds and offer extremely good value for money.

Tucked away between tyre shops and a few banks, this quaint little dhaba is a lightning rod for those who like a kick of spice in their food.

“Although our chaats and bhelpuris are the most-selling items for takeaway customers, nearly everybody who comes to eat at the restaurant itself orders a thali. It is just such a complete meal,” Mr Ashraf says.

The fare at Markaz consists of Baghara Baingan or an eggplant curry; mirchi ka saalan, khatti daal and behari chicken. The platter is served with rice and roti and topped off with a gulab jamun.

When the outlet opened in 2003, the thali cost a mere Rs140. Today, it is priced at Rs320, “a bargain by any standards,” The report says.

Compared to this, the mixed thali on offer at that other Islamabad institution – Table Talk in Kohsar Market – is far more urbane and adapted to suit the tastes of everyone who comes to eat there.

Since Kohsar Market is frequented by expatriates, the spice levels are much milder here. “But this does not mean that their thali has lost any of its inherent desi-ness.”

“We opened in 2002 and started serving the thali the day we opened. Our spice levels haven’t been toned down one bit,” said Rifat Mani – or Rify to her friends – who runs Table Talk.

Although the restaurant offers a variety of desi (subcontinental) and continental cuisine, the kinds of thali on offer here are strictly traditional. The mixed thali, a perennial favourite, features keema, chicken curry, daal and aalo ka salan, accompanied by fresh puris and crisp parathas and topped off with a delicately-flavoured kheer.

A similar selection – minus the meat – is available with the vegetarian option.

The famed “Bombay Chaat” acts as an appetizer. A chaat platter is a must-have for those who love chatpatta (spicy and pungent) foods.

But Table Talk’s thali is elevated by the green chilli pickle and slightly-sweet vegetable raita that accompanies it. It is washed down with a glass of lassi (made of yoghurt).

There is thali for the lower-end clientele where innovations are resorted to and more options are on offer. There is the upstart Karachi-based chain, Chacha Jee. Behbud Cafe also offers a vegetarian thali.

“But none of them quite manage to capture the taste and the spirit of this most traditional of subcontinental dishes quite as well as the old masters,” says the newspaper.

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