I find joy in the word ‘unlimited’ when we talk about food. It’s the word most often used when we talk about a thali joint. I also love the word ‘thali’ because it does not denote a single kind of cuisine, but, in fact, implies the vessel that food is served in.
The anticipation of sitting in front of an empty thali of glistening steel, with six or seven katoris (bowls) fringing the rim, waiting to be filled with unknown goodies, is alluring. And it’s not just the variety or the limitlessness of the meal. It’s the idea that this is how any Indian meal should be really served — the way our grandparents and their parents did.
Mumbai has its own short list of traditional thali favourites. For some reason, most of them seem to be located in the dense Kalbadevi and Pydhonie boroughs of South Mumbai. Let’s start with the Friends Union Joshi Club or Joshi Bhojanalaya at Kalbadevi. First of all, you need to be able to find this place, which is located on a crowded street, in an old building. Under an arch is a small board, which guides you to the first floor via a rickety staircase. Surprisingly, the place has large windows streaming with light, and is quite airy. The meal is simple: kadhi, dal, two sabzis, chapati, bhakri, khichdi and some farsan. But there is something about this modesty and restraint. The meal is Gujarati and it feels like you’re eating at a friend’s home.
In sharp contrast is Shree Thaker Bhojanalay, which is walking distance from Friends..., in the congested Fanaswadi area. Here the meal is royal. Starting with unlimited glasses of buttermilk, Thaker Bhojanalay serves a host of farsan and starters: dhoklas in all colours, bhajias made of anything from potato, methi, and large green chillies. There are chutneys of the sweet and spicy kind, as well as rotlis and rotlas, bhakris and bhakras, puris and puran polis, all doused in melted ghee. Then a variety of freshly cooked veggies and pulses arrive. Doodhi, tendli, chavli, moong, cooked dry, or with rassa (a watery gravy), spicy, sweet or raw. All served with sweet dal, kadhi, lachko dal rice, pulao khichdi, papad, pickle, and at least two kinds of sweets.
Stepping out of the congested area, there are two thali joints I must mention: Golden Star Thali near Charni Road railway station and Chetana at Kala Ghoda. The former is a time-honored thali with Gujarati as well as Rajashthani influences. Alongside shaak and rotli, don’t be surprised if you discover daal bati churma or gatte ki sabzi, and Mevadi malpua. I would say it’s one of Mumbai’s finest thalis. Chetana goes a step further and adds Maharashtrian dishes to the thali experience.
But the thali joint I visit the most is Thackers at Girgaum Chowpatty. With a view of the sea, this bright, modern place serves a thali that is not too rich, yet, not too simple. As we near the month of May, Thackers’, as with most thali places, the season of undhiyo is over and it is now the season of hot kachoris, khatta dhokli, sambhariya, fajeto, and above all, amraas and puri.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar