This evening my elder daughter and I walked up the hill to Totterdown to have a thali with some friends. A thali is the Hindi word for the plate on which the meal is served. The number and type of component dishes vary, any combination of rice, flatbread, vegetable curry, dal, sambhar, raita and salad.
My vividest childhood memories of thalis are from the three and half day journey from Pune to Coonoor we made every summer. We would stop at one of our favourite restaurants and take a seat in a room thronged with noisy diners. There was no menu, there being little need for one. At lunchtime everyone ordered a thali. Service was swift and within minutes large stainless steel plates were placed before us, their edges rimmed with half a dozen or so smaller dishes (watis) each filled with delicious food. My favourites included potatoes flavoured with mustard seeds and stewed drumsticks! In the middle was a heap of flatbread (puris or chappatis). As we ate our watis were continually topped up by an army of waiters circulating with pots of steaming curry and mounds of steaming hot puris. After we'd had our fill of bread the rice would arrive and if we'd had the foresight to save some until now, we'd douse it with sambhar (thin lentil and vegetable soup) and finish it with a spoonful or so of dahi (yoghurt) to aid our digestion. There was sometimes, but not always an Indian sweatmeat, and the whole meal was washed down with glasses of water. Then, after the ridiculously cheap bill was paid we'd pile back into the car and continue on south.
The Thali Cafe's non-dairy thali wasn't in the same league but it was good enough for me this evening.