The Indian thali is the artful incarnation of the American cafeteria tray where foods are assigned their specific compartments as a way of preventing them from mixing. In a thali, the food arrives on a circular metal dish orbit of different pools of flavor surround a mound of fluffy white rice with grains as big as risotto. Often times in the South, the experience may be served up on a broad banana leaf, which is promptly tossed away once each pile of food has disappeared.
Within the small depressions there is typically a variety of pickle; it was pickled lime in the North, but in Kerala has more frequently been salty cubes of green mango that almost seems to be sweating a red chili liquid. There is usually a protein in a spicy sauce, fish in Kerala, mutton chicken or a “pure veg.” chickpea variety elsewhere. In the name of Aryuvedic principles, there is always a cooling agent in the meal to balance out the spicy, which would be a sauce with curd or a coconut chutney to cool the palate. Fried mustard leaves and little black mustard seeds like shiny black pearls of caviar are found hidden in everything
The rice serves as an extender by which to carry all these flavors and make them last. Men, women and children deftly take their right hands and ladle the runny mixtures onto the rice, mixing it with heir fingertips to evenly distribute flavor. Food is not shoveled into their mouths, but little flavor bundled are assembled on the plate, pinched tight and placed in their mouths, surely leaving rice stuck to one’s hands, but never lingering on their faces or falling to the table.