Whether intentional or not, the canvas of Thali by Maunika Gowardhan is an instant evocation of the Hindu Holi Festival of Colours, bright flashes of red, pink, yellow, blue, turquoise and green flung across the book’s cover and through its pages with a sense of joy and abandon. Great book design is a unique art and that promising tagline ‘A Joyful Celebration of Indian Home Cooking’ is perfectly illustrated. I itched to get stuck in to the recipes.
Mumbai-born Maunika is now UK-based but spends time travelling through India exploring its multitudinous food cultures and bringing back regional traditions for experimentation in her North-east England kitchen, authoring a previous book titled Indian Kitchen, an expansive recipe blog and accompanying app. She takes time up front to explain the collection of small dishes that make up a thali (literally translated as ‘large plate‘), the occasion to experience a thali (from a basic home thali to a 50 dish celebration like the festival of Onam), and how to create your own successfully – even how to eat it.
The book encourages you to both use recipes at will for a quick family meal, or to use the guidance to create a thali of your own. There are four regional thali menu plans and five alternative thali selections as guidance. Deep breath and in at the deep end, I wanted to try to get close to the stunning 10-dish Gujarati thali on the front cover of the book, as the Gujarati love of balancing sweet, sour and savoury really appealed. I chose eight of her suggested recipes, missing out the phulka (flatbread) and sweet coconut gujiya (a deep fried pastry), figuring that a papad and some fresh mango could substitute for the crisp and sweet elements of the meal as necessary.
I’ll typically use English titles throughout this review though both languages are used in the recipes themselves. The thali dishes I tried came from the Stir-fried Vegetables, Vegetarian Curries, Dals, Snacks, and the Condiments and Raitas chapters.
Maybe it was down to space constraints, but I wish the menu plan thalis were listed in English as well as Indian (particularly as the otherwise impeccable Index is only in English) so I knew what I was getting into from the start. Undaunted, I soon had multiple pages tagged with sticky labels (Thali comes with a single emerald book-marker rather than eight, dammit!). I read the recipes end-to-end and knew what I was doing – theoretically anyway. I set some mung beans to soak overnight then put the following day aside for the effort.
Now for the verdict. Spicy Sweetcorn with Ginger & Green Chilli was a simple sweet-sour pleasure that added freshness to the plate. Gujarati Aubergine & Potato Curry was a rich, soft-flavoured balm, and reheated to gentle deliciousness the following day; a soothing dish. Broad Bean Curry with Carom Seeds, Jaggery & Tamarind Paste was saucy, tart and sweet and straightforward to make (note to self, don’t strain the beans if the recipe doesn’t tell you to). Sweet & Spicy Dal with Chillies & Peanut was way more than the sum of its parts, the peanuts giving textural interest and the spices combining for a layered mouthful of flavours. Steamed Lentil Cake (Dhokla) with Ginger & Curry Leaves was … interesting … I’d never made, seen nor eaten a dhokla before, and had no real idea how it needed to look once steamed. The beautiful accompanying photo looked a lot different to my undercooked, slumped effort once cooled and unmoulded. The good news is that whilst the centre of the dhokla was unpalatably soggy, the (obviously properly cooked) outer edges were slightly crispy, fluffy and thoroughly moreish, with a stunning hint of bitterness from the mung beans. I’m going to experiment with this recipe, as I adored this and definitely foresee more dhoklas in my future. It’ll make a quirky centrepiece to the celebratory Indian meal I’m planning. I’ve had a brief correspondence with the author since, and I think I may have to steam for slightly longer next time to get the right texture – my thanks to Maunika for the advice. Cucumber & Coconut Salad made for a great crisp spicy refresher and the Gujarati Mint & Mango Chutney is, as Maunika describes, a gem – fresh and tangy.
All in all I spent 4-5 multi-tasking hours in the kitchen over the course of the day (we won’t mention the washing up, shhhhhh). Creating that volume and variety of food solo, all of which (barring my dhokla blip) looked and tasted good enough to offer to guests, struck me as a triumph and as you can tell I’m buoyed enough to try it again. I struggled with anticipating volumes, as a result of which there were a lot of (albeit welcome) leftovers, so a guide to thali per-person quantities would have been useful. Now I’ve done it once I could make a reasonable guesstimate though. I was impressed with how do-able everything was, the quality of the writing and the careful composition of the thali to create a harmonious whole.
All of the recipes included in my thali would stand up well as either meals with rice or breads, or accompaniments to a simple dish. However in the interests of diligence and renewed greed I did also attempt a few recipes as family meals, starting with Spiced Egg Curry with Fennel & Chilli. I was charmed by the story of Rashida Rehman in Maunika’s recipe introduction – it’s rare of her to name-check a person or family in this book which is a shame as it does add something special to get that feel for the origins of a dish. Rashida deserved her shout out. This is a proper comfort dish, spiked with just enough fennel and chilli to linger but not enough to overwhelm the creamy eggs.
Finally I cooked Cardamom, Ginger & Black Pepper Chicken (from the Chicken Curries chapter), with a side of Spiced Cabbage with Turmeric & Green Peas. Both are do-again weeknight doddles: no huge effort needed, aromatic with punchily satisfying flavours and vote-winners in my house. The crushed cashews that garnished the chicken added a little crunch and sweetness that really lifted the dish, typical of Maunika’s attention to detail.
I’ve cooked 11 recipes from this book and scarcely skimmed the surface. There are chapters on Lamb Curries (an inviting Tamarind & Ginger Lamb Chop Curry with Katchumber in the summer, I think), Seafood Curries (a Hot & Sour Prawn Pickle appeals as part of a thali, and a creamy Classic Coconut Fish Curry looks like a midweek family-dazzler), Breads & Rice (Parathas have step by step photos), and Desserts, Sweet Things & Drinks (Stewed Apricots with Almonds, Pistachio & Saffron’s on my list) that I haven’t touched yet. The Snacks chapter in particular has several novel choices including Crispy Fried Beetroot & Potato Cutlets and Steamed Spicy Coriander & Coconut Cakes.
Photos are rustic and colourful, food plated on beautiful platters, in metal pots and in colourful ceramics. The thali photographs are works of art – I’d happily have them on my kitchen wall.
For those wondering whether they have the wherewithal to take on the recipes in this book, there’s a decent Kitchen Essentials section, covering everything from spices to fresh and store-cupboard ingredients and equipment. None of it is overwhelming or unachievable. There’s a boatload of vegan and vegetarian inspiration in Thali, and most of the recipes are gluten free.
Maunika also uses her recipes to give pointers on alternatives and accompaniments, making this a user-friendly book. She seems delightfully unfazed by her sprawling subject matter and has pinned down flavours and traditions transported from around India into the thali format whilst also giving the reader/cook the everyday freedom to combine and play. It’s an interesting concept and for me it works. I’m happy to add Thali to my shelf of grubbily well-thumbed classic Indian cookbooks. It’s already earned its place.
Recipes From Thali
We are delighted to share these two recipes from the book, with permission from publisher Hardie Grant.
- Sweet & Spicy Dal with Chillies & Peanut
- Hot & Sour Prawn Pickle
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Thali: A Joyful Celebration of Indian Home Cooking by Maunika Gowardhan from publisher Hardie Grant. Photography by Sam A. Harris. Our photography by Nicky Bramley.