PUNE, India — East of Mumbai, on the banks of the Mula-Muttha River, sits Pune, a city known for its IT hubs, manufacturing, and culture. The city center is crowded at lunch, with diners who are mostly students and families looking for reasonably priced, high-quality, vegetarian food.
They may end up at a “thali” restaurant — an all-you-can-eat version of Chinese dim-sum and Brazilian rodizio named for the round steel plate in which the food is served. Thalis are popular throughout South Asia. The 11-inch individual platter carries curries in small bowls called katoris that line the periphery, with staples like roti and rice in the center. Menus change by season and occasion and vary by region.
At the popular Sukanta restaurant, the cuisine comes from three western states — Maharshtra, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. Dining room décor is gold and marble, typical of the palaces in these parts, and customers are greeted by a 3-foot statue of Ganesha, the elephant god. In front of Ganesha sits a thali with the dishes of the day. Waiters dressed in smart short-sleeved black suits with gold details glide between tables serving from steel trays and vessels with handles.
No sooner are we seated than a waiter arrives with glasses of kala kattha, an Indian blackberry drink with black salt and sugar that aids digestion. The drink is tangy and refreshing and a sip transports me to the India of my childhood, when we drank kala kattha through the long, sweltering summer days.
The waiters move efficiently, serving without spilling a drop. Food arrives in a certain order. First come lime slices and a pinch of salt, followed by several chutneys — mint and green chile, tamarind and date, coconut and garlic. Then come raw salads and curries in the little bowls. The rotis, Indian flatbread made with whole wheat flour or millets, are served after the curries. The first course is rotis and the second is rice, both eaten with the curries, salads, and chutneys.
Etiquette requires that you can begin only after everything has been served and I curse my politeness. I want to start eating! There is a spoon but Indian food tastes best when eaten with the fingers of your hand (either one), each bite a savory delight. Indians believe that eating is a sensual experience and food has to be seen, smelled, tasted, and felt. Growing up, I always thought that everything tasted better when I used my hands. Plus, when you use your fingers, you can be certain you aren’t putting something scorching hot in your mouth.
Today’s menu at Sukanta includes paneer tikka masala, a cheese version of the popular spicy meat dish, a potato-peas curry, and vegetables cooked in a sauce typical of Kolhapur, a city 150 miles south. There is a lightly spiced yogurt soup, kadi, made by simmering buttermilk with cumin, coriander, and fenugreek seeds, dal, and three flatbreads — millet and wheat rotis, and fluffy spinach pooris, deep-fried bread fragrant with cumin and coriander, and crisp pappadums. A side of okra and chaat, a street snack with onions, tomatoes, and chickpeas doused in tamarind sauce, along with mint chutney, complete the first course.
Dessert in traditional restaurants like this one doesn’t come at the end of the meal, but rather at the beginning, eaten before the meal or between the first course of rotis and second of rice. Today’s sweet is a thick pudding made with custard apple, a green palm-size fruit with a creamy white pulp, and steamed dumplings stuffed with coconut, raisins, and cashews. Having lived in the West for over two decades, I decide to eat the sweets at the end, even as I hear my grandmother’s voice telling me to sweeten my mouth before my meal so no harsh words or thoughts spoil it.
I tear off a piece of millet roti and dip it in the different curries. The taste is complex, familiar, subtle, and overpowering. Indians believe all six flavors — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy, and astringent — should be offered on a plate for the meal to be nutritionally balanced. I am not sure if that has been proven by modern science but I do know that food is heavenly when it combines so many flavors.
I start to nibble, savoring the taste of every dish on my thali. The okra, sautéed until almost-burnt with mustard, cumin, and curry leaves is crisp and bursting with flavor. The vegetable curry with its rich gravy of ginger, garlic, coconut, and a dozen spices, is the hottest but offset with the roti and cooling yogurt soup.
A waiter materializes even before I have emptied a bowl to replenish the curry. It is the same for the rest of the dishes on the thali. Hawk-eyed servers show up to give you a roti before you have finished the previous one.
I begin to refuse every waiter who wants to refill my plate. After a few minutes, the manager comes to ask if I don’t like the food. He tells me the kitchen can make something not on the menu as long as I leave the restaurant with my stomach full. I tell him everything is delicious but obviously I’m not eating heartily enough for him.
Seeing I have finished my rotis, an elderly waiter comes with the second course of vegetable biryani and plain rice. I am stuffed and signal “no.”
“Try this biryani,” he says refusing to give up. “You are not eating enough.”
I give in and let him pile my plate as he sees fit. Refusing food offered with love is rude in India and I trudge on. It occurs to me there are not many restaurants in the world where the manager and waiter will come to your table encouraging you to eat more. That is the central idea of thali food — feeding people with love and care no matter what the cost (this whole meal will cost less than $10 each).
“That is thali food,” says Sukanta owner Upesh Marlecha. “It is unlimited and you are served until you say no. You leave with your stomach full and your heart asking for more.”
When I am done eating, a server comes with a gold-plated washing bowl and water jug. I lean forward to wash my fingers. He pours the warm water from the jug as I rinse my hands lightly. For the rest of the day I smell my fingers and remember an extraordinary meal.
It is the aromas of a 5,000-year-old cuisine, probably made and served very much like the way it originated.Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.