Maunika Gowardhan celebrates all of India on a single record – Advice Eating

“How many kitchens can give you that holistic experience of all those flavors spilling over your taste buds? Thali definitely does

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Our cookbook of the week is Thali by Maunika Gowardhan. Try a recipe from the book: Chutney Walle Aloo (New Potatoes in Spiced Mint Sauce), Tariwalla Murgh (Homemade Chicken Curry) and Punjabi Matar Paneer (Spiced Paneer with Tomato and Green Peas).

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A whole meal on a plate, thalis can be simple or extravagant — a canvas for two dishes or 40. Home comforts, says Maunika Gowardhan, can come from something as simple as a thali with pickles, rice, and hot, soupy dal to go with it Homemade ghee is drizzled.

As the Newcastle, UK-based chef and author writes in her second book, Thali (Hardie Grant – Chronicle Books, 2022) they’re a joyful celebration – but that doesn’t mean they have to be elaborate.

Whether enjoying a raw thali at home or enjoying a sumptuous 50-dish sadya (banquet) while traveling to Kerala on India’s south-west coast, “Joy comes from the smallest things to the most sumptuous things.”

Gowardhan was born and raised in Mumbai, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. She remembers the Gujarati and Maharashtrian dining houses of her childhood – no-frills restaurants where thalis were served at communal tables.

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“Can I tell you what is the best thing about eating a thali? In these places in particular, it’s all-you-can-eat,” says Gowardhan, laughing.

Each server oversees a different item: a chutney, a different bread, and so on.

“(Your thali) will fill up and it will fill up and fill up and you start eating and you have sweet, sour, spicy, hot, hot. All of that in every single bite and you keep wanting more and more.”

Thali by Maunika Gowardhan
Thali is the second book by chef and author Maunika Gowardhan. Photo by Hardie Grant Books

When it comes to having a thali at home – as Gowardhan’s family have done at every occasion and meal – “what could be nicer than just sitting together?”

The key to putting together a thali, Gowardhan explains, is balance: a dal, a stir-fry, a chicken curry, bread, rice, a pickle, a small, crispy fried snack, and a candy. Every bite, a complete experience.

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You could cook just one dish Thali and call it dinner. “But how many kitchens can give you that holistic experience of all those flavors spilling over your taste buds? Thali definitely does that.”

As a platform for different colours, cooking techniques, flavors and textures, Thalis offer an insight into the regionality of Indian cuisine. Gowardhan illustrates this by providing examples of Punjabi, Andhra, Bengali, and Gujarati thalis along with menu suggestions based on dishes in the book.

(The accompanying recipes are all part of their Punjabi Thali, “packed with bold flavors.”)

With the selection of these four regions, she covers the north, south, east and west of India, but could have gone much further, says Gowardhan – had she had the space.

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India is the seventh largest country in the world; Its diverse landscapes have helped shape a diverse food culture. After almost two decades of professional cooking, Gowardhan sees her focus on regionality as a constant. She travels to India two to three times a year, visiting churches and meeting families.

“I could go there 100 times and I don’t think I’ll find out everything,” she says. “The more I travel, the more I want to learn about it. Every 20 or 30 kilometers you travel in India, the food changes. This is because the climate is changing. That’s because the soil changes, and when the soil changes, so does the crop. Also, with the change of crops, that means there are people using different techniques to preserve things.”

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Maunika Gowardhan
British chef and author Maunika Gowardhan. Photo by Sam Harris

Her travels have given her a new understanding of her homeland. Some of the recipes in the book, like Bengali pantua (sweet potato and cardamom dumplings in a sticky clove syrup) and Andhra paruppu payasam (sweet moong dal and cashew pudding with cardamom and jaggery that Gowardhan makes monthly) are little known outside their country home regions.

“The idea is not just to be different to be different. The idea is to give you a small snapshot or window: these are the regions. This is the kind of food they do. And yes, it’s unique, but also so, so delicious,” says Gowardhan.

Leaving Mumbai for Wales, where she studied business administration at Cardiff University, Gowardhan was quick to discover that “regional cuisine wasn’t really a thing” in Britain

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She began hosting dinners for friends and colleagues, which grew into a private cooking business. After graduating, she worked in the corporate division for five years and cooked on the side. At a crossroads in her career, she saw an opportunity to focus on food full-time with her events, website and recipe app.

“People didn’t know about different aspects of regionality, diversity: what actually comes from every region of India. How differently people cook in different regions of India,” she recalls. “I wanted to show that and give it a voice.”

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Her mother and grandmother grew up in Mumbai and was an avid cook. Money was tight, so her mother cooked sparingly, she says, but “there was always this bond of food that held us together.”

That she would incorporate that sense of good food into her profession years later was unexpected, but looking back at the role food played in her upbringing, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, she says. “I don’t think I realized it in my teens or even in my twenties. But the more I strayed from home and from what was familiar, the more I craved the familiar in the most unfamiliar surroundings.”

In Mumbai, Gowardhan was exposed to a plethora of regional Indian foods. She had friends and neighbors from Bengali, Gujarati, Keralan, Punjabi and Sindhi and part of her family is Marwadi from Rajasthan state.

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Every Sunday, she would visit a friend’s house for sai bhaji, “a thoroughly Sindhi dish” made from dal and leafy greens. “I think I was very fortunate to grow up in a city where I could try all these things, which translated into my memories of Indian food.”

Thalis are an integral part of so many communities across India, Gowardhan adds. In the book, she wanted to give readers a sense of what the regions are, what they offer, and the different cooking techniques: steaming, roasting, frying, salting, simmering, and slow cooking.

“All of this in a single meal is just utterly fascinating and hopefully amazing for people to explore and try.”

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