What the Fork?: Decoding the Thali at Udupi
By Wynter Holden
Reading an ethic restaurant menu can be like trying to decode a mysterious ancient parchment; at least, if you don't speak the language. It can also get you into a lot of trouble if you're remotely picky about food, or allergic to any ingredients. Does pesche mean chicken or fish? What exactly is Avgolemano? Does pecan pie have nuts in it? (Ok, not that last one, but I always loved Ben Stiller's bad date story in the movie Keeping the Faith.)
My sister and I have always wanted to sample the South Indian Thali Platter at Udupi Café in Tempe. She’s a vegetarian, and I dig ethnic food, so this is one of the few places we can both eat together without complaint (and from my diet-friendly point of view, without sinking into a carb coma).
The sharable dinner plate is listed as: Roti, white rice, sambar, dhal, kootu, avial, poriyal, rasam, curd, pickle, pappad, payasam and coffee or tea. Sounds cool, but who knows? Rasam could be marinated leaves and twigs for all I know. At least I can say with confidence that it isn’t pig’s liver, caterpillars or any other meat product, since Udupi is strictly herbivore grub.
First, let’s ignore the rice, pickle and coffee/tea, as any red-blooded American already knows what those are. That leaves us with Roti, sambar, dhal, kootu, avial, poriyal, rasam, curd, pappad and payasam.
Roti – Traditional Indian flatbread that resembles a slightly engorged tortilla. Sambar – My sister freaked when she saw that Sambar is a type of deer. But Bambi can rest easy. This one is just a spiced bean soup. Dhal – A yellow curry made with lentils. Kootu – Personally, I think this one sounds like a Mario Bros. character. It’s actually a veggie and lentil dish with a consistency somewhere between soup and solid curry. Avial – Spicy mixed veggie dish, sometimes served with curds (see below). Poriyal – Pan-fried veggies with masala and other Indian spices. Rasam – A thin, brothy soup made with tomato or tamarind juice. Curd – Remember Little Miss Muffet? Her curds and whey were the clumpy and milky parts of cottage cheese, respectively. In Indian cuisine, curd is yogurt, which is traditionally mixed with rice and paired with pickles or chutney. Pappad – Crispy dried lentil chips (usually fried). Payasam – Indian rice pudding. Yum!
Basically, if you like lentils, rice, veggies and lots of spice, you'll adore this Thali. Split it with a friend and one of you is bound to like each course. Don't be threatened by the sheer number of items on the platter. Each dish is served in a small, appropriately-portioned bowl. Think of it as a South Indian sampler plate!
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