Lets start from the very beginning, a very good banana leaf to start…..
Any travel reminiscence will not be complete without food. In the context of India, its a culinary splendour and adventure of it’s own right. The abundance of food choices in Tamil Nadu is mind-boggling. Please don’t expect your usual global food here (which I believe available in Chennai and main cities). The menus here comprises of too-die-for Thali , endless dips for your thosai , fluffy Vaadai and I almost forget the bru-coffee served in silver tumblers that only last two gulps for me. Indian drink their coffee after the meal, unlike me who like to start with coffee. This usually creates stares, since I order not one but two tumblers of coffee and drink with my meal.
South Indian food is equally well known in the world like the their northern counterpart. For a common eye, each menu looks the same and the variety in offer are limited. Coming from Malaysia or Singapore, we tend to over-compare with what’s offered in our shores. Don’t expect wanton-noodles, nasi briyani or even char kway teow served in the same streets or hawker centres (non-existence in India).
Menus are standard all over the places I’ve been. You have meals which usually consists of several vegetables, two or more curries, sambar, rasam, papadom, ghee, yogurt, pickle all served to you in all-you-can-eat style on banana leaves. The idea is to get you full and leave the restaurant with full satisfaction. Bless the Indians! We may feel a bit intimidated by the constant request from the server (waiter) to add more and strict protocol eating a thali meal. Back home we like to mix and match. Fried rice with dumplings, carrot cake, kuih for dessert and constantly washing it down with sugar-ladden carbonated drinks or sweet tea.
In India its a whole new story. Eating is taken almost like a ritual not just to feed the hunger. A typical meal starts with mountains of rice separated to smaller hills. First the papadome and the first hill is drenched with Rasam (a kind sourish consome) and eaten. Then follows with Sambar and other remaining curries. All is washed done with a cooling yogurt to help with digestion. Finish your meal proudly with sweets like gulab jamun or payasam. I know all looks and sound divine, but I wanted to put them on bullet forms so its easier to follow. Remember its a ritual, a strict adherence is mandotory. Please try it once, the end results are different. Don’t rush the meal like we do, take your time and enjoy!
Method for Eating a south Indian thali.
1. Eat pappadam. Remove all small bowls and place them around your platter (banana leaf). Get rid of the spoon-a proper Indian would never bother with it. Push the chappati to the side. At this point, a waiter will come and spoon a heap of rice onto your platter.
2. Dump the curries/dahls, one by one (there is a proper order, but I don’t know it-all I know is that curd comes last) or all at once onto the rice, saving halwa for dessert. Mix with the fingers of your right hand. You know you always wanted to eat finger food, and you’ve finally arrived at a place where it’s considered good manners to do so!
3. Scoop up mouthfuls of rice/curry mixture, with or without the help of a chappati. You can use your left hand if necessary to dump curry on, or push items onto your right hand, but don’t actually use it to eat-left hands are traditionally reserved for toilet duties. Keep in mind that Indian bathrooms do not have toilet paper. You get the picture.
4. Mmmm! Mmmm! If at some point you run out of a favorite curry, flag the waiter down and he will refill your little metal bowl.
5. Eat halwa or sweets
I did not have much thali for some hygeine reason, but when I had one it was ever so satisfying. Eating off banana leaves never looked more cool.. or using your hand.. going back to basic I say.
Talking about food is never complete without sweets. A story about it deserves a post on it’s own.