In Mumbai, the fine Art of Thali, a series of small dishes washed down with traditional indian yogurt drinks, is the ultimate comfort food.
Author C.J. Kurrien Photography Daryl Visscher/Redux
THE MEGACITY OF MUMBAI has no shortage of restaurants. In fact, there are an estimated two million of them, even some top-flight options, such as Morimoto’s excellent Wasabi, and Ziya, which serves nouvelle Indian cuisine and is run by Michelin-starred chef Vineet Bhatia. But in a city that can feel overwhelming, sometimes diners crave simple, tasty food. In this region of India, that means going to a middle-class venue specializing in thali—robust fare that’s home-cooked and served on big silver platters also called thali.
Few restaurants have mastered the art of the vegetarian thali meal like Panchavati Gaurav. Located in the heart of south Mumbai, between a recently spruced-up Art Deco cinema and the no-nonsense Marine Lines business district, where wholesalers hawk everything from bicycles to custom eyeglasses, Panchavati mostly serves the area’s buyers and sellers, as do the handful of other nearby thali restaurants, such as Rajdhani and the quaintly named Friends Union Joshi Club. They all offer 25 to 30 preordained dishes to satisfy businesspeople’s appetites.
You eat what you get, but it’s okay because you’re in able, experienced hands. And while there’s no question that the explosion of culinary options in Mumbai has cut into the popularity of the thali—especially among the affluent youth, who don’t want to be seen at the restaurants where their parents dine—Panchavati’s owner, Rahul Chandak, isn’t worried. “Our food is tasty and consistent, with no unpleasant surprises,” he says. “There’s something to be said for the familiar.”
The masses who flow in on weekdays are a testament to that. Late Saturday afternoon, when there are no crowds, is the best time to get the full experience. A plate is placed on your table no more than 15 seconds after you take a seat, and the procession commences: A small army of upbeat servers ensure that the thali is filled with silver bowls, which are constantly topped off with an array of gravies, curries, chutneys, pickles and sauces; snacks, salads and desserts (often fresh fruits in custard) are added to the mix. You’ll get perfect tasting portions of dal (lentils), kadhi (spicy yogurt sauce), samosas (deep-fried dumplings), pakoras (fritters) and vegetables such as okra, yams and tomatoes. The empty sections of the platter are filled with roti (Indian flatbread) moistened by generous portions of ghee (clarified butter), then fortified with a helping of aromatic basmati rice. Wash it all down with chaas, a buttermilk drink, or sweet lhassi, and don’t let the fact that the meal is vegetarian fool you— this is not light fare.
The staff has a sixth sense for the amount of food on your plate, and the moment a server intuits that any of the little silver bowls is running low, it’s promptly replenished. Servers hover unabashedly, offering ever more tamarind sauce or pickled mango. If you say you’ve had enough, they may look hurt as they walk away. A safari-suited Chandak will likely stroll up to the table in their wake, greet you with a “Namaste” and instruct a server to fill your plate immediately while you look on helplessly. Chandak makes sure diners are served as if they were family, for better or worse.
It was Chandak’s uncle, Radhakisan Chandak, who started the eatery in 1982 and made customer service as much a priority as good food. “Our staff is trained to stay pleasant no matter how busy it is, and to keep smiling,” he says. “Our customers have to feel good while eating, feel pampered,” he adds. Part of that was eschewing the look of thali house as spartan space lined with creaking wooden benches under whirring ceiling fans, in favor of a loungy, air-conditioned restaurant where customers relax on couches while soft Indian music plays in the background. The change has helped transform the thali houses’ image as cafeterias for visiting traders— mostly single men in search of home- cooked fare—into go-to lunch and dinner spots for Mumbai residents of every stripe.
“A good thali works nicely for a quick business lunch or a meal with family,” says Raj Singh, the creative director of a large advertising agency who has been a Panchavati regular for the past decade. “It’s like an eat-all-you- can buffet, but with pleasant people serving you, urging you to eat as much as you can.” It’s this gentle prodding, the personal touch by the servers that customers say they find most endearing about thali culture.
Another reason for Panchavati’s success lies in the quality of the ingredients its chefs use. While it has become trendy for restaurants to tout the local sourcing of their ingredients, this is the real deal. The Chandaks own wheatfields in a bordering state, as well as flour mills near Mumbai, where they process the grain. They grow all the spices used in the kitchen. But, unlike the Michelin-starred restaurants on the gastronomy circuit that emphasize terroir and the sanctity of their local produce, Panchavati’s procurement methods are not marketed aggressively. Using the highest-quality ingredients is just part of carrying on the family tradition. And besides, true thali connoisseurs are most interested in the finished product.
“There are plenty of reasons why I come back here almost every week,” says Singh, while a waiter serves him yet another helping of dal. “But the most important one is that the food always tastes amazing.”
Mumbai-based writer C.J. KURRIEN wishes that all his food was served to him on a silver platter.
Puran poli: fried flatbread; mixed fruit salad
Methi tikki: potato and fenugreek patties; deep-fried lentil balls
VEGETABLES AND CURRIES
Vatana: sauteed cabbage with peas; baingan ki bhaji: eggplant with pepper sauce; rassa aloo: potatoes in spiced gravy; matki ki ussal: curry moth beans
Gujarati dal: mild yellow curry; gujarati kadi: sweet and sour yogurt curry
ROTIS AND RICE
Round flat wheat bread; millet bread; steamed basmati rice; spiced vegetable rice
Mango pickle (spicy); lime pickle (sweet and tart); papad: thin cracker; spicy green pepper paste; tamarind sauce; garlic chutney; fried peppers; fresh lime slices
250 rupees, or about five dollars