The UNESCO World Heritage City of Ahmedabad in the west Indian state of Gujarat is known for many things, among them: colourful festivals, affable residents and above all, its lip-smacking food.
In Indian cuisine, thali means a meal consisting of several courses, served one after the other in a systematic manner. Each Gujarati thali is designed to be an explosion of subtle flavours, tastes and textures, with its delicate balance of sweet, sour and savoury notes. Due to the prominent influence of Jain culture in the region, Gujarati cuisine itself is predominantly vegetarian, and this extends to the commercial thali.
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Thalis are typically served on large round steel plates (the word thali itself means plate), with the side dishes served on small bowls – known as katori – lining the edges. The best way to enjoy the Gujarati thali is to tackle it course by course, just the way it is served. And be sure to put away the cutlery and dig in with your hand.
A Gujarati thali typically begins with a course of farsan (small steamed and fried starters), the most popular ones being local favourites like khaman dhokla (steamed cake made of chickpea flour) and samosa (a fried snack).
The meal then moves on to the main courses, with various types of rotis (breads made of whole wheat and refined flour) like the soft flatbread phulka, the thicker bhakri made with pearl millet flour, and the deep-fried but irresistible puri. These are eaten with accompaniments of three to four types of vegetables in dry and gravy form (the most popular ones are those particular to the region, such as sev tameta, a slightly tart curry of crunchy chickpea noodles in a tomato gravy), dal (yellow lentils) and kadhi (mild yoghurt stew), followed by a course of rice, either served plain or as khichdi (a soft version cooked with lentils).
Finally, a mini platter of desserts is served to end the meal on a sweet note. While the usual suspects such as the creamy shrikhand (strained yoghurt), fried malpua (pancakes) and the gooey halwa (desserts usually made with semolina) are almost always found here, in the hot summer months between May and July, this offering includes aamras. This thick and delectable juice of the ripe mango makes for a sublime local dessert, and is often served in unlimited quantities.
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Here is our pick of the best places to try the Gujarati thali in Ahmedabad:
Among Ahmedabad’s thali joints, Agashiye has to be the first among equals. Agashiye lives up literally to its meaning of ‘on the terrace’, with a lovely rooftop location at the graceful 1920s mansion converted into a heritage hotel. In good weather, opt for outdoor seating for a candlelight dinner under the stars.
Combining an authentic Gujarati thali with an immersive cultural experience, Vishalla has been popular among both locals and visitors since it started in the late 1970s. The rustic decor, with floor seating and earthy lanterns, brings the feel of a rural hamlet to the city, with musicians and dancers completing the ambience.
Another local favourite recreating an open and rustic way of life from the olden days, Rajwadu serves up both Gujarati cuisine and its slightly spicier counterpart from the neighbouring state of Rajasthan. Here too, there is simple but engaging entertainment from folk artists to complement the meal.
4. Gordhan Thal
The influence of Rajasthani cuisine in this restaurant is visible right from the entrance, which is reminiscent of an opulent haveli (traditional) mansion. Along with the typical thali offerings, popular Rajasthani dishes like dal baati churma (hard spherical bread served with spicy lentils) are also served.
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5. Gopi, Atithi and Toran
Any discussion of Gujarati thali eateries would be incomplete without a mention of the city’s dining halls, like Gopi (opposite Town Hall, Ellisbridge), Atithi (opposite Shraddha Petrol Pump, Judges Bungalow Road, Bodakdev) and Toran (opposite Sales India, Ashram Rd, Navrangpura). These establishments are less formal and are renowned for their quick and cheerful service, along with food that tastes like a slice of home.
– TEXT BY CHARUKESI RAMADURAI
PHOTOS: AGASHIYE FACEBOOK, RAJWADU
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.