During the Jain festival Paryushan Parva, held in August-September, some Jains keep a fast. On the ninth day, they break the fast with a special meal called parna. It begins with sugar water and moong (green gram) water, followed by moong, papad methi, rabdi, sheera and khakhra, a light yet nutritious shoehorn into a regular diet.

The parna is a set meal, one of many such meals or thalis that are popular across the country. The thalis vary according to region, community, religion and season. No state symbolizes this better than Maharashtra. “Along the Konkan coast, rice is a staple, spices are used with restraint and kokum liberally. As you move inwards, rice is replaced by jowar (sorghum) and bajra (pearl millet) rotis, and lime is used as a souring ingredient. Food in the north-eastern part of the state is spicy and bears Andhra influences," says Paritosh Joshi, a media researcher and self-confessed Maharashtrian food enthusiast.

Most regions have their own version of the thali. The Bengali restaurant Iti at Vashi, Mumbai, has a special thali every weekend till 4 August, to celebrate the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore: The inspiration was Thakur Barir Ranna, Purnima Tagore’s book on the recipes collected by her great-aunt Indira Devi Choudhurani, the poet’s favourite niece.

“Traditional Indian thalis are a perfect example of nutritional optimization of food components. A typical thali is designed for the climate and the regional produce and also balances all nutritional requirements," says Pune-based nutritionist Amita Gadre Kelkar.

Gujarati and Rajasthani might be the most commonly available thalis in India but, of late, set meals from other culinary traditions are baby-stepping their way out of the domestic kitchen and into the commercial space. We bring you our favourite four:

Keralite Sadya

On her son’s first birthday, homemaker Rajani S. prepared a Keralite sadya of about 20 dishes. “A sadya is a vegetarian feast, which can go up to 60-65 dishes," says Rajani. Sadya is served on a banana leaf, during festivals and special occasions like weddings.

At Rajani’s home the payasam is served first and then the side dishes. “These include kichadi (a coconut and yogurt side dish), pachadi (a curry-like side dish), avial (mixed vegetables with curd and coconut), thoran (dry vegetables and coconut stir-fry), erissery (pumpkin curry), olan (coconut milk and pumpkin curry), kalan (vegetables in yogurt and coconut), kootu (mixed vegetables and Bengal gram curry), ozhichu (vegetable curry) and parippu (moong dal curry). There will also be three or four varieties of pickles and papad," says Rajani, who details her experiments on her blog, My Kitchen Trials.

After the side dishes, it’s time for the rice. A dal/parippu is served, followed by rice and ghee, sambhar, rasam and a round of pulissery (curd-based curry) or kalan. The meal ends with payasam, curd or buttermilk and moru (buttermilk curry).

Nutrition quotient: “The sadya has kichadi, which is a self-complemented food with a complete protein combination," says Kelkar. “You also get a good dose of fibre and micronutrients in the pachadi and the avial, and carbohydrates from other vegetarian dishes." Two or three spoons of each sabzi add up to around one katori (bowl), “about one-third of your daily requirement of fibre. About one-fourth of your protein requirement comes from the dals and the sprouts. Combining the vegetables with dal brings down the glycaemic index (calculating the effect of foods on blood glucose levels) of the meal," Kelkar adds.

Assamese ‘thali’

“Thalis don’t traditionally exist in Assamese food," says Gitika Saikia, a Mumbai-based media professional. “An Assamese meal (ekhaj) is eaten in order, starting with light flavours and moving to stronger ones."

The ekhaj begins with an Assamese staple, khar, a masoor dal that uses the liquid obtained from straining dried banana stem ash with water. It is eaten with pitika, a mash of potato, pumpkin, bottle gourd, ridge gourd, banana flower or brinjal—much loved for its uncomplicated taste and easy digestibility—and plain rice. Then come fritters, usually made with brinjal, pumpkin, potol (pointed gourd) or bor (masoor dal paste), followed by a plain masoor dal with a paanchphoron (five-spice) tadka, or using kosuthuri (colocasia leaves) or jackfruit seeds, and a dry sabzi.

The later courses focus on meats: fish, in the form of a maas tenga, a sour, light river-fish curry prepared using tomatoes, elephant apple or khorisa (bamboo shoots) or curry leaves; chicken cooked with banana stems, potatoes or pumpkin; pork cooked with bamboo shoot, mustard greens or banana flower, or as a smoked pickle; or duck, pigeon or mutton.

“Leafy vegetable khar will be made during winters, while pointed gourd fritters and the dhekia haak (fiddlehead fern) sabzi will be made only in summers," says Saikia.

Nutrition quotient:“The Assamese thali is brilliantly balanced," says Sangeeta Khanna, a New Delhi-based nutritionist. “The alkaline start to the meal with the khar enables easier absorption of nutrients and cleans the gut. Even the fish and meats are cooked with seasonal and mostly wild vegetables, so the micronutrient content is excellent. The use of fermented bamboo and chillies helps minimize the negative effect of toxic phytates."

The Bengali ‘thala’

Among Bengalis, food follows a strict course-by-course structure. “This way of eating is so ingrained we follow it even in a non-Bengali restaurant," says Kalyan Karmakar, who blogs at Finely Chopped and conducts food walks in Mumbai.

A Bengali meal begins with bitters—bitter gourd or karela fry, or shukto (a bittersweet mixed vegetable curry) as they act as an appetizer, according to Ayurveda. Then there is the bhaja (fry), made with brinjal, potatoes or cauliflower and seasoned with salt, turmeric and chilli powder. The vegetable course is next, featuring a simple vegetable preparation of mochar ghonto (banana flower) or alu posto (potatoes with poppy seeds). The fish course begins with small river fish, moving on to rui (rohu or Indian carp), hilsa and, finally, prawns. Among the meats, chicken is eaten first and then mutton.

“You always eat the prized items towards the end of your meal," says Karmakar. Then chutneys are eaten as palate cleansers, along with papad. The sweets also are eaten in a graded format, starting with mishti doi and ending with the very sweet rosogolla.

Nutrition quotient: “There is an emphasis on locally available fish, which is good. The fish, if fried, becomes the oil component," Kelkar says. The consumption of fish and other meat is important as it provides higher grams of protein content than dal. “It’s good to start a meal with bitters as it awakens all the senses in your palate," she says.

Sindhi set menu

“Sindhis do not have a thali," says Ahmedabad-based Vaishali Sabnani, who blogs at Ribbon’s to Pasta’s. “We used to have different food combinations, but not many follow them these days."

A popular lunch thali at Sabnani’s home is Sindhi kadhi chawara—kadhi and rice—eaten with alu tuk (fried potatoes with spices) and boondi. The kadhi is sweet and sour, made with tomatoes, tamarind, assorted vegetables and besan (gramflour). Papad is considered to be “blotting paper among Sindhis because our food is very oily," says Sabnani.

Dal and alu are common combinations as are dhodha (a spicy roti fried in oil) and chutney. A typical Sindhi meal starts with matha (buttermilk with boondi) and pakoras. Then come the dal and vegetables: The well-known tri-daal, made with split gram, urad dal and chanadal, is usually accompanied with one vegetable dish, like a fried bhindi, karela or alu. Then there is chawara (rice), phulko (chapati) or a jowar ka roti, accompanied with pickles, papad and a sweet.

Nutrition quotient: “Deep-frying kills off all nutrients, except fibre, but one fried item doesn’t make for an unhealthy thali," says Kelkar. Khanna, however, thinks the Sindhi meal is too oily and lacks vegetables and salads. “Starting the meal with matha is a great idea but the abundance of fried pakoras and rotis makes the meal a bit unbalanced," she says.

■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■

Thali station

Where to go for your fix

Keralite ‘Thali’

•Ente Keralam, Chennai, Bangalore


•Royal Sindh, Mumbai

•Sunny’s Indian Kitchen, Bangalore


•Paradise, Guwahati

•Axomi, Bangalore


•Bhojohori Manna, Kolkata, Bangalore, Mumbai

•Iti, Mumbai