I’m not sure when I spotted the Thali in downtown Montréal. It’s just a chapatti’s throw north off Rue Ste. Catherine on the east side of St. Marc, occupying a nondescript aluminum storefront that has served many masters over its lifetime. I have fond memories of enjoying a thali at the Punjab Palace on Jean-Talon, where the chef’s daughters serving the busy lunch crowd were bejeweled with the most intricate and elaborate mehndi. I realize I’m in the area right now and ready for a bite to eat. Let’s give the Thali a try.
The heavy plate glass doors, both the outside and the inner door of the vestibule, come with instructions but only in French. “Poussez”. I follow the directions and push into the small but brightly lit room. Save for a few pictures of the Indian subcontinent on the far wall, a few potted plants and a busy bulletin board, there was little decorating, leaving more room for the tiny tables and chairs that all but filled the space in front of the steam table, cooler and the waist-high counter, no doubt cobbled together from a restaurant supply house specializing in used equipment. Near the manual cash register, a smiling, small but stocky fellow dressed in black (it is Montreal) stands ready to take my order.
Behind him on the wall is the sparse menu, writ large to occupy more space and make it easy to read at the same time. But dominating the choices is the Thali Plate, front and center. The choice is made easy, Vege or non-Vege. It looks like the price went up a while ago as there is a handwritten note taped over the original prices, announcing they are now either $9 or $10 respectively. Still, it seems like a bargain, so I’m going for the non-Vege. $10.
He scribbles a note on a small paper and hands it to me with my change and a receipt. At first I don’t understand as I get two $5 bills back from a $20. No PST? No GST? Nope, $10 total.
“Thank you. Just hand the note to the counter and then order”. The server takes my slip, looks quickly at it and impales it on a spike along with all the day’s orders. That’s when I realize there is no fancy computer or credit card machine in sight like a fast food joint - just people. My thoughts flash to the dabbawallah system in Mumbai, where for decades home cooked meals have been delivered to office employees by an elaborate system of workers, many illiterate, using bicycles and trains with rarely a mistake. (Watch the movie “The Lunch Box” for a better explanation.)
“It’s my first time here, what are my choices?” I inquire, eager and hungry.
“You get two meats and one veg” he replies, having said it a thousand times before, but still smiling and pleasant as he lets me know my options.
“You have butter chicken, curried chicken, curried beef and curried lamb, and then one vegetable. You choose”
“It comes with rice, naan and a papadum.”
I should stop and ask you, dear reader, do you know what a thali plate is? I’ll let Wikipedia explain it better than I can.
“Thali is an Indian style platter, made up of a selection of various dishes. The 'thali' style serving is also popular in Nepal and Bangladesh. It simply means a round platter used to serve food. The idea behind a thali is to offer all the six different flavors of sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy on one single plate (although the latter two flavors are actually forms of chemesthesis )”. Sorry, but you’ll have to look that last word up! According to Indian food serving customs, a proper meal should be a perfect balance of all these six flavors.
In this case they chose a four compartment tray - close enough for me. I hate making choices, preferring to taste a little bit of everything but, since that wasn’t an option, I get butter chicken, curried lamb and a heaping spoonful of the curried carrots, peas and beans, reasoning that because it is the veg container with the least in it, it must be good. And I was right.
On top of a big scoop of dry Basmati rice, ready to absorb the sauce, was a warm naan topped off with a crispy, spicy papadum, as fragile as a thin layer of ice lifted off a water bucket the morning of the first frost of the season.
Now, to choose my seat. As I look around the room, there is a sprinkling of patrons scattered about - a young Indian couple with their baby, a table of students from the nearby university noisily and merrily eating at 2 or 3 tables pushed together and a couple of solitary African fellows deeply involved in their thali. I end up by the door, a mistake as the cold winter winds of Montréal find my back each time someone comes or goes. Music is coming from somewhere - alternating between Bangla and Bollywood - adding to the chintzy but exotic atmosphere. I sit down and survey my thali, ready to dig in. Fork, check. Spoon, check. No need for a knife as the meat is in bite size pieces, all the better to absorb the fragrant spices. The thali plate is hefty, about a foot in diameter with a generous serving in each compartment.
I have to turn to the Pantone color chart to find a shade that best describes the butter chicken (see left), such a rich, royal golden hue it was. First impressions are sometimes the best and they flood in on first taste. Why their chicken melt in your mouth and ours doesn’t? Could it be they know something I don’t? The lamb in the curry is young and sweet, definitely not mutton in masquerade. Why don’t more people eat curried vegetables? Wait a minute - billions of people already do, just not in our culture.
I’m soon immersed in my thali, paying little attention to my surroundings as I take a small piece of naan and pile on curried lamb and rice. It’s soon evident what the spoon is for, scooping the lamb curry and butter chicken over the rice a bit at a time, allowing all the flavors to meld together. Delicious!
I approach the final stage of my meal and begin to appreciate the curves of the compartments, as gentle as a woman’s breast. There are no sharp corners to hide any remaining vestiges of my banquet. The last of my naan is saved to mop up the remaining sauces still lingering.
Fully sated, I return the thali plate and tray to the fellow behind the counter. He looks at the plate and exclaims, teasing
“It’s so clean I don’t have to wash it, just put it back on the pile.”
I smile in return and say one of the only Indian words I know. “Nandri.” Thank you.
One of the female servers, a beautiful young woman in traditional dress and long, glistening, jet black hair quickly turns to see who is speaking, a big smile lighting her face.
The two workers look at each other and she clarifies his quizzical look.
“That is Tamil” she lets him, and me know as the three of us share a few moments together chatting as new customers patiently gather behind. He turns to me, saying about the staff in a matter-of-fact tone “We speak five languages here”. Not each person, mind you, but humbling nonetheless in comparison to my meager international vocabulary. They seem to have developed the common language of friendliness to best communicate amongst us all.
It’s a long drive back to Vermont, so I think it wise to use the facilities before hitting the road. The “Toilettes” sign is on the wall above a narrow hallway behind the steamtable. I venture down the corridor, past the cases of tomatoes and who-knows-what before spotting the tired but sparkling clean washroom. I’ve been in brand new restaurant pissoirs dirtier than this (I even got a free meal coupon from Smashburger for my comments on their webpage, comparing their lavatory to what used to be the typical conditions of a 1950’s gas station bathroom).Theirs is humble but clean - I couldn’t ask for any more.
I slowly shuffle my way back to the entrance through the suddenly busy restaurant. Once again, I follow instructions as I approach the exit to leave. “Tirez”.
Pulling the doors open and enjoying the short but cool walk back to the van, I realize that leaving the Thali at this time of night I won’t get home until 11:00 but it was well worth it, now full in more ways than one.
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