Life’s lessons from the Great Indian Thali

Times Kitchen Tales: Life’s lessons from the Great Indian Thali
Don’t forget to pick a bento box for yourself before you get on the Shinkansen,” said Tokyo-based food writer and friend, Yukari Sakamoto, when she heard that I was taking the train from Tokyo to Kyoto.

Yukari’s book, Food Sake Tokyo, had turned out to be a great guide for us when we were there, and I saw no reason to doubt her on this too. I dutifully picked up a bento box from the Tokyo station and got onto the train. I saw my fellow passengers, primarily Japanese, take out their bento box an hour after the journey started. I followed suit. Two things struck me about the meal on the train. Firstly, the fact that the bento box had in it an array of food items, meat, fish, vegetables, rice, noodles and fruits; and yet was so compact and did not leave one with a heavy feeling. Secondly, I marvelled at how Japanese passengers ensured that the compartment was clean after they were done with the meal. They folded their boxes neatly and put all the leftovers inside them. The box had a scented paper tissue which they used to clean up the folding tables and soon the compartment seemed as fresh as the garden of Eden.

I then realised that what I had just observed was an expression of the shared tradition of the east, of Asia. A lot of the Japanese principles of eating as encapsulated in the bento box, are mirrored in our thali format of eating.

I had been introduced to the ayurvedic and yogic principles on which the thali is based, while attending classes in the 100-year-old, The Yoga Institute, in Santa Cruz, Mumbai.

Ayurveda, one learnt, speaks of the balance of five tastes in terms of sweet, sour, salt, bitter, pungent and astringent. The idea of having them all in a meal, can make one’s food so much more interesting.

Looking out for Sattvic foods such as whole grains, pulses, seasonal vegetables and fruits, herbs in our diet was espoused in the classes with an aim to a sattvic state of mind – health, harmony, peace and purity. And for that little bit of restlessness that one needs to power us on at work, there are the Rajasik food items – those which are heavy on spices, onion and garlic. Meat, fish, eggs and the like are considered to be Tamasik and are said to make one lethargic, and hence need to be handled with care.

These concepts might sound overwhelming, however, following the thali format ensures that one can follow these principles rather seamlessly. Multiple courses or dishes as espoused in thali meals, ensure that no one dish or food type dominates a meal. Each item in a thali is cooked and spiced differently. This ensures variety in taste. The use of liquids such as dals, gravies, butter milk or dahi, help fill our tummy. These, along with the presence of vegetarian dishes and grains, ensure that meat or fish never dominates our meals even when we have them. The dishes on a thali, with their variety of colours and textures look appealing to the eye too. Hearty enough to ensure that we are not distracted while we eat and that we indulge in mindful and joyful eating instead.

The multi-course thali format was a regular affair of my growing up days in Kolkata. In my adult years in Mumbai, I had moved on to having single course meals for convenience, usually with television giving us company. I have once again made a conscious effort to adopt the thali format of eating and enjoyed the balance that it has brought to my life and health.

What about you? Are there any of our traditional food practices that you have adopted in your search for living a better life? If you have, please share your story on Practical tips would be most helpful.

Simple tips to make thali work for you:

1. Balance: Load your plate with seasonal vegetables and fruits. Meat or fish, when consumed, should play a bit part in the meal and not dominate it
2. Portion control: Take as much as you feel you can eat on your plate. Leave ‘white spaces’. Do not take second portions

3. Digestion: Choose unprocessed rice such as red rice or whole grains such as millets for rotis as they offer fibre and fill you up faster than unrefined grains

4. Less is more: Use fresh herbs and less spices and eat in a focused way to appreciate each flavour that has gone into the dish

5. Plating: Instagram your thali pictures. If you make them look appealing to others then the simplest of meals will look appealing to you too.