This post is a part of the What’s On My Plate series
Picture: Fernando Monte da Silva
The thaal displayed on the wall is a family heirloom that brings Rumana great pride
It is often said that food, as a labour of love, often yields the best results. Give chefs and restaurateurs the option of taking the weekend off and dining at their competitors Michelin-starred restaurants, or alternatively going back home to their mums’ for a Sunday roast, and there’s no doubt who would come out the winner…perhaps there’s something that ‘mother knows best’ statement that we’ve all grown up with, who knows? However, that’s a topic for another day’s discussion. Though it seemingly ties into what we should be talking about today as well – one of my latest discoveries on the culinary front – Thaal.
On paper, Thaal is a restaurant in Reis Magos that serves Bohri food which has been cooked in a homely fashion. However, that same paper acts as the tip of the icberg; what you don’t see on it is so much more than what’s visible to the naked eye – Thaal is about family; about the very essence of dining together; about reminding people of the way meals are supposed to be had over discussion, interaction and engagement. Who cares about amenities like smart phones and television, when you can have a good old-fashioned chin-wag over delicious food? To be fair, I’m fairly guilty of the above mentioned ‘crime’, often dining ‘together but not together’ with near and dear ones, as each person uses their respective device for entertainment, which caused even more attention to be paid, while at Thaal.
Rumana Roowala, the woman behind the venture, ran the legendary establishment, Eden in Calangute and Candolim for ages. However, her eventual plan was to own an eatery overlooking the river and serve people the kind of food that came naturally to her. Therefore turning to Bohri cuisine was a no-brainer, always keeping the focus on things she had grown up eating at home, and going back to age-old recipes to ensure that every dish served has a distinct flavour. This food, in true Bohri fashion is served on a thaal (hence the name of the restaurant), a circular steel dish, the standard size of which is designed to accommodate a group of approximately 8 people, which is Rumana’s ideal number to serve per thaal. The thaal is elevated with a tarakti (the stand on which the thaal is rested) which is placed in the middle of a square piece of cloth called a safra, laid out on the floor. The Bohras have a no-wastage policy, and as such not even a little food should be left on the thaal when it is taken away. In keeping with this, during a community meal, the thaal is not placed until atleast eight diners are present, because the portions served are intended to suffice that number.
The process of dining in this manner is manifold, and involves a series of processes before the food arrives. Bohra etiquette for meals requires (ideally) that heads be covered and hands washed both before and after the meal. Thus, in a communal dinner or when guests are invited home, once everyone is seated, it is common for a serving member to go around with a chelamchi lota (a traditional basin and jug) and wash the guests’ hands. At Thaal, the former is let slide, but the latter is taken most seriously, with a member of staff going around, undertaking the responsibility, and then returning with a little bowl of salt, from which diners are expected to take a pinch to be consumed. This habit stems from two major factors; the first one being that this consumption helps to cleanse the palate; while the second has links to the Prophet Mohammed having said that this tasting of salt before and after meals prevents 72 major diseases. After this has been done, another dutiful staff member arrives with a little bottle of ittar – also known as attar (an essential oil derived from botanical sources) – from which a little dab is applied on your wrist. The reasoning behind this is to create a feeling of luxury, as well as a process of association that lingers long after the meal has ended. Rumana believes that the scent lingers for at least 24 hours, unless there has been a concerted effort to scrub it off. Imagine waking up the next morning, brushing your hair back from your face, and still being able to reflect on the fabulous food you had the previous day, courtesy your olfactory senses picking up on the same scent your mind associated with the meal.
Now, before I get to the part of the discussion that people love best – the food – I’d like to mention that people can have a Thaal experience in numbers of all sizes. There are individual mini thalis for solitary diners, right up to a dish that serves 8, of which Rumana can accommodate 4 at a time in her dining space. And if that still isn’t your thing, you can still pick from the ala-carte segment of the menu for a straight up dining experience, with a stellar view of the Mandovi River. And now, with no further ado, let’s get to the food.
Picture: Fernando Monte da Silva
There's no better way to enjoy a plate full of samosas than over a community thaal
Interestingly, the first, though not the only, course is dessert. A Bohri feast begins and ends with a sweet dish, with one often being sandwiched in-between courses. In our case, it began with the Kalamra, beautifully-cooked curd rice that had the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, with a generous incorporation of dried fruits and rose petals, before being garnished with pomegranate pearls. While in essence this dish looks a lot like a rice kheer, it has the minimal amount of milk with a creamy texture. The fact of the matter is that it is the yogurt in the dish that makes it special, and stand out from its counterparts. Following the first course was the Channa Batata which comprised boiled chickpeas and potatoes drizzled in tangy, sweet and spicy chutney. The sautéed onion that came along with the dish, along with the spices that accompanied it, however, had the room enveloped in the wafting scent of biryani, though the flavours belied the aroma.
Up next were a few snacks that served as a throwback to my days spent walking along Mohammed Ali Road, sampling the street food on display there; and believe me, that is high praise in my opinion. The people that work on the food there are artists in their own right. And it clearly shows that Rumana is walking the talk, when she says that everything is made from scratch within her industrious kitchen. The Moong Daal Samosa, filled with lentils and spices; the Kheema Samosas, with perfectly ground and not just minced mutton and hand-ground spices; and the Bohra Cutlets, made of soft and juicy chicken, wrapped in egg and fried until the exterior has the most perfect golden sheen, are absolute class. They were a perfect reminder to how some of the most basic sounding things on a menu can elevate the entire meal, through memory triggers, which can play as a great a role in defining great dining experiences as one’s palate.
At this point, it was time for the dessert in the middle of the meal to make an appearance, and so it did, in the form of Malido. I think that the best way to describe this to someone who has neither eaten nor seen this dish (but is familiar with Indian cuisine), as the love-child of a churma ladoo and suji (semolina) halwa. I’ve heard that it is customarily prepared on the occasion of Eid ul Adha or Bakri Eid. If that is truly the case, then I’m going to have to figure out a way to procure my stash for the year. Everyone dining with me unanimously voted on that being the best dish of the meal. The Malido preceded our main course, which was the Bohra Mutton Khichda, a staple dish of the community, which is made up of slow-cooked chunks of meat with lentils and broken wheat; all of which is delicately seasoned and blended altogether with many of Rumana’s secret homemade spices. We were admittedly pretty stuffed by the time we’d reached this course, and amongst servings of beautifully steam rice and ladles of khichda, it didn’t seem like the food was going to ease up anytime soon. However, saving our stomachs from an assault of the best kind, our server came to our table to let us know that we had arrived at the end of our meal, barring the dessert (and everyone knows that there’s a separate stomach for that). We were presented with a bowl of a delicious homemade chickoo ice-cream, which was top notch. However, I’d heard rumours of Rumana making something that had truly caught my attention through the grapevine. This dish, that remained elusive, and may unfortunately be making its way off the menu, is the Imli ki Kulfi, which I can’t even begin to describe in words, and I’m afraid that even if I did, I wouldn’t do it justice. I’ll leave it to each one’s imagination, with only this line as a guide – think of a Hajmola-like flavour with a sorbet-like consistency.
If I learned one thing over the course of the afternoon, it’s that eating at Thaal doesn’t involve going out for a meal, as much as an experience. From the artifacts belonging to Rumana’s family on the wall, to her explanation of her heritage; from the bonding over food that restaurant promotes, to the process of partaking of the meal that merges austere with causal with apparent ease; and from the reconnecting of old memories to the making of new ones, everything has a been thought out at Thaal. It is a given that by the time you are ready to leave, that you’ve not just killed off that hunger in your stomach, but also at least temporarily, quenched the thirst for new experiences and the making of new memories.
The bonding experience is unmatched in terms of casting aside the things that don't matter, in order to have a sit-down with friends and family.
There are some fabulous cocktails on the menu, that are a cross between global and local spheres.
The average cost per head at the Thaal experience , is ₹700 (at the time of publishing this review).
How to get there
K15, kegdevelim, Reis Magos, Goa 403114
Food is a huge part of any culture and for me, chancing upon a good meal is synonymous with having a great day. The What’s On My Plate series of posts is where I discuss food, great places to eat, and anything gastronomically moving. This could be anything from a great place to eat, to an obscure kind of food, to an origin story. After all, there is no love like the love of eating.