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India: Thali in Bangalore
May 11, 2014, 11:21 am

In the South Indian city of Bangalore, a traditional thali meal, with its mouthwatering variety of dishes, is yours for less than two dollars.

Word of mouth keeps the Mavalli Tiffin Room filled with hungry clients from the moment it opens until it runs out of food. Popularly known as MTR, the restaurant occupies a former home near Bangalore's Lalbagh Botanical Garden, with the hall as the main serving area. The utilitarian look of the place is quite forgotten when the food arrives. Much of the menu must have been devised in 1924, when MTR opened as a eating house… and it is all the better for it.

This is South Indian cuisine at its best — aromatic, served in piping hot courses, with even the snacks enjoying their share of delicious accompaniments. The food is cooked in ghee (clarified butter), made on the premises, and the spices are more for taste than mouth-searing pungency.

A full thali meal — brought to you on a round metal plate called a thali — typically includes an Indian bread (roti, chapati or paratha), rice, a sambar (a lentil-based stew) or similar curry-like preparation, rasam (a clear spicy soup flavored with tomatoes), cooked vegetables, a salad of freshly sliced cucumber and yogurt or buttermilk.

Around you, elderly dhoti-clad gentlemen wandering in for breakfast mingle with joggers in running suits and sneakers — reminders of Bangalore's status as India's Silicon Valley. At lunchtime, the line of would-be eaters is serpentine. Parking problems are part of the package, but nothing deters those who have tasted the fare or been impressed by accounts of it.

When to go: Bangalore's climate is pleasant year-round.

Planning: MTR uses a coupon system to allot customers a time and space to eat. Avoid holidays and weekends, when the chances are that the food will run out before you reach the front of the line. The left hand is considered unclean and Brahmin establishments like this one would prefer customers to eat with the right hand. MTR also owns stores called Namo MTR, which sell mixed spices and frozen snacks.


Tiffin Time


By a quirk of etymological and former imperial fate, a Scottish dialect word, 'tiff', meaning 'sip' has evolved into a widely used South Asian term for a snack or light meal. A 'tiffin room' is where you buy such snacks or meals.

Classic South Indian tiffin snacks, eaten for breakfast or in the late afternoon (tiffin time), include idlis and dosas, made from ground parboiled rice and white lentils, mixed into a paste and left to ferment overnight. For idlis, the paste is steamed in special containers. For dosas, it is griddled to make crisp brown pancakes.

Wadas, another local snack, are small dumplings made of yellow or white lentils ground to a paste, seasoned with green chilies and diced ginger, then fried in hot oil. Like idlis and dosas, wadas are served with coconut chutney and sambar.

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