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Dining for Body and Spirit in India : Ordering thali is an intelligent way to experience a dazzling range of flavors--and to sample an ancient cuisine.


MADRAS, India — If you're invited to lunch--as I was--at a home in South India, you may wind up seated on the floor, eating from a banana leaf a collection of dishes that, served in a restaurant on a metal tray, would be called a thali. The food will be vegetarian, and the meal may be as much a religious ritual as a gustatory experience. South Indian vegetarian cookery is a high art that has developed over thousands of years. Its foods will dazzle you with their remarkable range of flavors.

Don't be surprised if the men of the house are bare-chested, garbed from the waist down in a cloth wrapped like a sarong. That's the way orthodox Hindus of the Brahmin caste dress both to worship and to eat food that is designed to promote physical as well as spiritual well-being.

Although my Sunday lunch with the Madras relatives of a Los Angeles friend included almost 20 dishes and three beverages, the food was light and refined, and I didn't feel stuffed.

We sat on the floor in two rows facing each other. My hosts were accustomed to sitting cross-legged, but I shifted awkwardly from one stiff position to another. At my left was the family temple: a tiny room filled with religious objects, photographs and figures, with mango leaves strung across the top of the doorway. Later, I would be allowed to watch evening prayers, which were accompanied by chanting, blasts on a conch shell and the rhythmic, high-pitched tones of a small brass bell.

The banana leaves on the floor before us held about half a dozen spoonfuls of various dishes arranged in a prescribed pattern. As we ate, the women of the household brought out hot dishes, rice and refills. The custom is to eat with the fingers of the right hand, mixing portions of food with rice--popping the bundle in the mouth with the thumb as a lever. Picking up wet mixtures with rice wasn't easy, but I guess clumsiness is expected of a foreigner. At least my hosts graciously acted as if this were so.

The dishes had names such as rasam , sambar , kosumbari , menaskai and payasam. Rasam is a spicy-sweet pineapple-and-lentil broth, while sambar is a thicker combination of lentils and cauliflower seasoned with a complex blend of spices. Still more vegetables and fruit appeared as curries, salads, pickles and chutney. These included sweet and sour mangoes (called menaskai ); shredded carrot mixed with green lentils ( kosumbari ); a cucumber-carrot-tomato salad; cow peas (pea beans) sweetened with jaggery (a mellow, dark palm sugar); plain lentils; cilantro chutney, and tempura-like fritters of plantain, potato and green pepper. Alongside we ate crisp lentil wafers called papads , plain rice sprinkled with clarified butter (ghee) and tamarind-seasoned rice combined with lentils and vegetables.

There were three sweets: cashew brittle, a ball of milk fudge, and payasam , a soupy bowlful of vermicelli, milk and nuts seasoned with cardamom and saffron. Then came homemade yogurt that was as thick and soft as a pudding. Before the meal, we drank sweet, fresh coconut water. Plain water accompanied lunch and strong South Indian coffee followed, along with a taste of a new dessert the cooks were perfecting: cubes of homemade fresh cheese in custard sauce.

Before eating, my host Ramavittal sprinkled water around his banana leaf, sipped water from the palm of his hand and took six small bites of rice. He was praying, he told me, and feeding the god within. A few grains of rice placed alongside his leaf honored the god of death. Afterward, Ram prayed while again sipping water from his hand. Then he sprinkled water on a tiny mound of salt at the edge of the banana leaf. Salt is highly personal and symbolic, he said. Eat salt at a dinner hosted by someone and you are indebted to him. Dissolve the salt in water and you're free of obligation. After doing this, you eat nothing more. The leaf and the food remaining on it are given to the neighborhood animals.

As a tourist, you might not get to eat in an Indian home. But you can have the same sort of meal in many cafes and hotels in Madras, as well as in other places around India, where the thali has been adapted to local cuisines and styles. What you will get is a round, stainless-steel tray filled with small steel bowls called katori , each of which contains a curry, yogurt or other dish. In South India, I was served rasam , sambar , rice and curries made with seasonal vegetables. Also served were pickles, chutney, a yogurt-vegetable relish and the sweet of the day, which often is payasam, milk fudge or some other confection. There will be papads to begin and also pooris (breads that look like puffy, deep-fried tortillas) or, perhaps, whole-wheat chapatis (another kind of bread that looks similar to grilled flour tortillas).

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