Over recent years, the humble thali has truly been embraced by British fans of Indian food. Referring to the circular, metal tray that acts as a vehicle for a variety of mouth-watering dishes, the thali has been utilised in India for hundreds of years. Each state has its own particular recipes that are likely to show up at this lunchtime spread – it all depends where exactly in the sub-continent you are sitting down to lunch.
In general, a lunchtime thali is likely to contain several katori (small bowls) holding various vegetable dishes, rice, dal, pickles, curds and some kind of Indian bread such as an everyday roti or crispy pappadum. But let’s take a closer look at Manipur, a tiny state in the northeast of India, bordered by neighbours whose names just smack of exoticism – Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam.
Although small in size, Manipur makes up for its stature with its grand reputation, based on a long, rich history as the economic and cultural bridge between India and Asia. In fact, during the time of the British Raj, Manipur was considered to be one of the most important states in the kingdom. These days, it is known as one of the seven sister states of the northeast, where tribal villages still stand strong and ancient traditions remain integral to the community.
If you are hoping to sample a traditional Manipuri thali, you will need to venture away from the larger hotels and explore the smaller roadside establishments that stick close to their roots and provide home-cooked meals just the way the Manipuri like them.
Two key elements you are guaranteed to find included in the Manipuri thali spread are vegetables and fish. You will also find an extensive use of spicy chillies and an abundance of fresh, aromatic herbs such as chives, coriander, basil and pepper cress adding flavour to a wide variety of dishes. The Manipuri favour growing their own vegetables and herbs at home, giving the thali a rustic feel that feels fresh from the garden.
Dishes of Manipur
Rice is a staple for the people of Manipur so you can expect every thali to include a bowlful. Sometimes the rice might be fried with an assortment of spices and chopped vegetables – chakangouba is a flavoursome rice preparation that makes a for a tasty thali dish.
The fish may be prepared in any number of ways, according to preference. One of the more popular recipes is eromba–for this dish the fish is fermented, baked or smoked and mashed with hot, red chillies and steamed vegetables. Another is nga-thongba, or fish curry.
Along with these dishes, you can also expect an assortment of sides. Ooti, a chickpea dal; singju, a salad incorporating chopped banana leaves and flowers; kangshoi, a seasonal vegetable stew topped with smoked fish; and kang-ngou, a spicy, vegetable stir-fry, are just a few options which may serve to spice up your Manipuri thali.
Intrigued? Plan a visit to one of London’s best Indian brasseries and you can sample the delights of the Indian thali for yourself.