Thali

India’s collection of small dishes is one classic, delicious lunch

The charms of a good Indian buffet are obvious: rows of chili-spiked curries and fragrant basmati rice, colorful vegetables, and a price that won’t bust your budget. But when the inevitable monotony of those steam-table lunches becomes too much, turn to a thali instead.

Thalis are the classic combination plates of Indian cooking, a collection of small, complementary dishes that together form a complete meal. Each follows the same basic formula: a constellation of little metal cups filled with vibrant curries, stews, soups, pickles, and dips arrayed on a large tray like dabs of paint on an artist’s palette. There may be a heap of rice in the middle, and perhaps a few blackened swaths of flatbread, too.

India’s regional cuisines are distinct schools of gastronomy. And the thalis served in each region reflect that diversity. Take Radhe Sweets & Catering in Anaheim, which specializes in the vegetarian dishes of Gujarat. Its thali is a parade of lentils and other legumes; a few pieces of a fresh wheat flatbread called roti; crisp, crackerlike papadum; fiery jalapeño-and-carrot pickles; and a semisweet square of the chickpea-based bread called khaman.

Laxmi Sweets & Spices in Tustin builds its thalis with more familiar Punjabi-influenced flavors. Both vegetarian and nonvegetarian are customizable with your choice of vegetables or  meats. The nonvegetarian is wonderful; try it with the tender lamb curry and the downright addictive chicken tikka masala. There’s also the cooling yogurt dip called raita, and dessert  in the form of gulab jamun, a golf ball-sized doughnut soaked in sugary syrup.

Tamarind of London, the upscale temple to Indian cooking in Newport Coast, doesn’t adhere to a single regional style, and at lunch offers a rare treat in Orange County: seafood thali. The Goan-style fish curry is excellent; the black-pepper prawns snap with freshness. And the basket of warm naan provides the necessary heft to fuel a winding drive along East Coast Highway.

Radhe Sweets & Catering 
3070 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, 714-220-9355, radhesweets.com

Laxmi Sweets & Spices 
638 El Camino Real, Tustin, 714-832-4671, laxmisweetsandspices.com

Tamarind of London 
7862 E. Coast HWY Newport Coast, 949-715-8338, tamarindoflondon.com

Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi

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This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue.