Recently, at a friend's birthday, I experienced something completely new and exciting: the bohra thaal or thali. I have always loved the concept of thali - having a complete, several courses meal, on one dish. It is served on a big round tray, which can be made of steel, silver or copper, and several small bowls arranged in a circle inside hold a different variety of dishes (depending on which part of India the thali is from) but traditionally a dal (lentils), one or two vegetables, one non-vegetarian curry, rice and/or bread, curd, chopped onions and lemon, and a sweet dish. I love Gujarati and South Indian vegetarian thalis - the ultimate comfort food!! But never knew that the Bohra muslim community also boasted a sinful version of the thali, of course hardcore non vegetarian, until that evening...
I did not know this was going to be a completely non-traditional dinner until the huge thaals were brought into the living room and laid out at three different locations (the thaal is a communal meal and up to seven people can share one):
At first, the thaal was brought with some starters in it - an assortiment of kababs, mutton mince samosas and chicken skewers deep friend in batter. An intriguing potato dish also came along, almost like a pickle.
Then there was the good part. A chicken curry (made with an entire chicken) was served with fresh, soft loaves of bread:
Kept dipping bread in the curry and it tasted heavenly (severe cramps in my stomach the next day suggested it may not have been the best choice for my firang stomach but I just couldn't stop)!!! Copious amounts of beer were the perfect fit!!!
Then, as if this was not enough, a mutton biryani was brought for us to share and knock us out in an almost irreversible food coma. I did not try the soup on the side.
The next day, I did some research on the bohra thaal and here is what I found out:
Excerpts from timeoutmumbai.net, www.alavibohra.org, fatima-theffactor.blogspot.in
In the Dawoodi Bohra community, the surest sign that dinner is imminent is when family members start passing the salt. They pass a little pot to each other around the thaal, or community platter, and each person dips their finger into it to taste a few grains. This ritual is supposed to stimulate the digestive juices, cleanse the body and signify togetherness. This is followed by dessert, probably ice cream. A savoury dish follows and then sweet and savoury alternate until the biryani and bread are served. The meal ends with fruit.
The traditional Bohra thaal came from the belief that a family that dines together stays together. A large plate, enough to serve eight to ten people, is filled with each course and each diner eats from the part closest to him or her...
... Alavi Bohras eat collectively in a group of 7 persons at social functions or with family members at home in a traditional big round plate known as a thaal while sitting on the floor. Eating with spoon and fork is not permissible i.e. one has to eat with his right hand fingers and not by using left hand. Also one cannot sit and eat on table or chair with exception that one has any health problem. This is a tradition (sunnat) of the Prophet Mohammad (saws) who sat with his household i.e. Ali, Faatimah, Hasan and Husain (panjatan paak) in a big round plate and used to eat the holy dishes of the Paradise send from the Heavens. Every year during the New Year’s Eve, every Bohra’s house witnesses a specially decorated thaal with a variety of dishes made from cereals (popularly called as lachko), vegetables, fish and meat. It is considered a good omen for a house to sit together in this thaal and begin the feast with the name of Allaah by taking salt, sugar, milk, honey etc. Manners and etiquettes are maintained strictly while eating and sharing the dishes. Salt is tasted first by reciting Bismillaah after which the eldest member in the thaal eats the serving first. The thaal must be clean and free from any remaining food after eating. Each member takes the amount of serving which is sufficient for him. Wastage and excess of food is not permitted. Every member again tastes the salt at the end. One has to sit with his legs folded backward and see that nothing falls down while taking morsels on the plastic sheet (sifrah) kept below the thaal...
A typical "menu" would be:
First Course: Salt - there will be a small bowl with salt in it which everyone tastes before starting
Second Course: Some rice which has been sweetened with sugar in a really tiny plate. This is considered to be auspicious
Third Course: Ice Cream (this is the most common beginning, if not ice cream, then something sweet)
Fourth Course: Chicken. normally a Chicken Starter, Chicken Baked Dish or something that's like a starter. Seekh Kebabs, Miscellaneous Kebabs and Fried Chicken are the favourites
Fifth Course: Another Sweet dish. Now in the fancy weddings you get brownies, cheesecakes and other such delectable sweets. Mithais or Indian sweets are also common to have here
Sixth Course: Mutton. Either a whole leg of Lamb, or some lamb gravy with parathas are served
Seventh Course: Rice and Soup. Biriyani is the most common, but there is a variety of fancy rice pulavs that are served
Eighth and Ninth Course: If that isn't enough, normally the meal ends with dry fruits and fresh fruits. Sometimes they even have a fruit Sorbet
Tenth Course: Paan
Wow!!! Thank you, R & L for a great new experience!