Thalis are about balance: a carb or two, a few veggies, a sweetie, a spoon. Appetizers, mains, and desserts don’t exist as such; everything comes out at once. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get seconds or thirds on whatever you like best. Just remember: the “h” is silent.
Thali, Chandan Shree
Outside of the door to Chandan Shree, a restaurant in Jaisalmer known for the quality of its endless thalis, sits a sink. Forget to use it, and you’ll be eating that day’s dirt along with whatever goodness comes out of the kitchen. You get a spoon, of course, but you might as well just use your right hand to eat, like everyone else. Boys roam the restaurant with tiffin buckets, refilling your tray until you tell them to stop.
Thali, Chandan Shree
Clockwise from top left, kadhi, a mixture of yogurt and chickpea flour; chaat, a dry mix of golden flakes, peanuts, and mega-spice; dal (pureed lentils); sangri (desert bean) curry; chapati, an unleavened bread similar in tearability and texture to a pita; and tomato and paneer (cheese) orbit around a single gulab jamun (a fried ball of milk and flour dipped in syrup).
Making chai by headlamp, Thar Desert
As part of our travels through this region once known as Marwar (Kingdom of Death), we spent some time camping in the Great Thar Desert, where our guide made chai by headlamp. Above us, stars and satellites winked.
The Thar is the world's largest inhabited desert, and in much of it, people prepare their meals, as they do everything else, without electricity. Portable gas and kerosene stoves, wood and charcoal fires, and sterno canisters serve as the main heat sources.
Making chapatis, Thar Desert
Like tortillas in Mexico, chapatis appear at most meals in Rajasthan, including breakfast. To make them, wheat flour and water intermingle until a ball is formed, which gets flattened into a disc and cooked on a hot plate known as a tawa. Not pictured: the grunting, regurgitating camels who were resting nearby.
Scrub, and not much else, grows in Rajasthan. This is not a land known for its lush gardens or diverse produce, which makes its sabji (vegetable) stews all the more interesting. In this dish, served on the floor of a mud hut where we spent time as part of a homestay, bhindi (okra) has been mixed with barely caramelized onion, slithery and slitherier.
Baati, cabbage, and raita
Baati, an unleavened bread made from millet, cracked rather than curled, as a soft roti would. Tougher than a rye bread, it nevertheless had a similar hearty, whole-grained chew. Slices of tomato and bitter melon help liven the cabbage (right), while chili powder and mustard seeds give the buttermilk raita its own heft.
Paratha and rice
For breakfast, last night’s rice has been transformed via ghee (clarified butter), hard black chickpeas, and strips of tomato and cabbage. We pinched pieces of the unstuffed paratha, an unleavened whole wheat flatbread, to use as a shovel for the rice. The paucity of fresh ingredients means that elements of meals get recycled, several times over in some cases.
Chapati, gobi, squash
Increasingly, however, Rajasthani cooks have access to a greater amount of produce than in centuries past, thanks to an active network of roads connecting its cities with others—and the many, many trucks traveling among them. The squash (upper right) floats in a rich milky sauce. More abundant than fresh water, milk forms the base of many dishes. The unadorned gobi (cauliflower) has been softened but not spiced.
Cracked wheat porridge
We could have sworn this cracked wheat porridge called dalia had been doused with maple syrup. Alas, it was only sugar. For a soupier or creamier effect, sometimes milk is mixed into this breakfast dish.
Mogri, a type of desert bean, can be prepared savory or sweet. At a low-lit restaurant inside Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort, we tried the former, a curry known as mogri mangori. This mild version also included bits of aloo (potato). To avoid getting locked in for the night, we exited the fort via a tiny door cut into the massive gates, which had been barred shut with brass locks and chains.
Ride on enough trains, or stay in enough guesthouses, and eventually conversations with fellow travelers stray toward food: what have you eaten? Where? We heard numerous raves about the paneer tikka served at Desert Boys Dhani in Jaisalmer, but dallied, fearing it would be too touristy. When a lifelong Jaisalmerian we met said it was the best thing to eat in town, however, we made straight for it. True to rumor, the chunks of cheese (paneer) arrived at our table on fire, flames shooting around the waiter’s hands. Once cooled, the charred cheese cracked, its innards oozing out like lava from hot earth. Peppers and tomatoes rounded it out, adding crunch and sweetness.
After a month in India, we consider ourselves experts in one thing and one thing only: chai, which we drank at least five times a day. There's nothing particularly Rajasthani about it, but no single cup we had anywhere else on the subcontinent matched the sweet milky tea we were served in the Singh home near the Great Thar Desert. The Platonic ideal, this chai rippled down our throats like silk.