Despite common misconceptions, there is really no such thing as ‘Indian food’. Rather, the huge geographical area that now makes up the country named India boasts an enormous variety of regional sub-cuisines – there are probably close to 40 different ‘Indian’ cuisines, which vary widely from one place to another. Overall, the cuisines of the subcontinent are ancient ones and their regional development first made huge strides during northern India’s ‘Golden Age’ (between the 4th and 6th centuries), an era that was characterised by openness to both scientific and artistic pursuits. This, in turn, attracted travellers from elsewhere in the world, and these cross-border interactions introduced new cooking methods and produce to India – including the arrival of tea.
Fast-forward to today and food from India is once again enjoying an epicurean boom – this time, both on the subcontinent and elsewhere in the world. Top chefs are embracing a newfound freedom to go beyond creating ‘authentic’ food, and the result is a new way of showcasing the classics while simultaneously innovating and exploring the possibilities offered by this area’s diverse cuisines.
This trend has most definitely arrived in South Africa and in Cape Town in particular, with the recent openings of hotly anticipated contemporary Indian restaurants like Marigold and Thali. With gorgeous, original food and polished, Instagram-friendly decor, these are the places to explore ‘the new Indian’.
Thali is an Indian tapas-style eatery created by culinary master Liam Tomlin, of Chefs Warehouse fame, in partnership with Dimo Papachristodoulou, the man behind Fat Cactus and Long Street Cafe. On a balmy summer’s night, nothing beats the rear deck overlooking the garden, which has been transformed into a Delhi summer fantasy with lush plants, colourful hanging lights and garlands. After sampling Indian-inspired cocktails, such as cardamom sours, chilli martinis and lassis, take a moment to revel in the decor: it’s a pared-down take on Wes Anderson’s aesthetic in The Darjeeling Limited complete with walls clad in birdcage wallpaper, parrot nests and an open kitchen.
Liam has roped in his protégé at Chefs Warehouse, John van Zyl, who was also part of the winning team that opened Angelo Scirocco’s Urbanologi in Johannesburg last year, to head up the kitchen. According to John, ‘Thali is a celebration of Indian heritage, but we don’t aim to replicate dishes in their current form. Rather, we do our own interpretation and add to the flavour profiles to create something slightly different, progressive and unexpected.’
So there are kebabs, kulchas and dal aplenty but all with twinkling twists. Says Liam, ‘When Jan [Liam’s wife and business partner] and I arrived in Delhi, we couldn’t believe the vibrancy. It’s a feast for the senses – and also an assault on the senses. You just don’t know what to take in.’ It is this bombardment of stimuli that inspired the restaurant’s name, and this visit to India also sparked the idea to focus on a thali style of serving.
In Indian, Bengali and Nepalese cuisine, a thali is a round platter used to serve a variety of dishes. Traditionally, a thali should include sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy flavours on a single platter. At Thali, Liam has taken the idea and married it with the way tapas dishes are served at his successful Chefs Warehouse branch on Bree Street.
Before the tapas starts rolling in, we recommend sampling the Cape Malay oysters, whose aromatic garnish brings an element of surprise to your palate. Currently, these are followed by dishes featuring a selection of white meats: think melt-in-your-mouth curried slivers of kingklip and a succulent chicken kebab from the tandoor that’s so tender it’ll restore all faith in traditional cooking methods. The vegetarian dishes range from aloo jeera (potatoes with cumin seeds) and plates of cauliflower prepared three ways to cleverly concocted dals that have been singled as standout dishes by both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Chilli is served as a condiment to offer diners the pleasure of determining how spicy their dishes should be.
The ever-changing menu sticks to a mandate of always indulging guests, exciting the palate and incorporating Indian flavours. Our favourite sweet treat is the cardamom-infused lemon posset – a winning blend of classic French posset with cardamom, an intensely aromatic and resinous spice that is typically redolent of India.
Find Thali at 3 Park Rd, Gardens, Cape Town; 021-286-2110. For more information visit instagram.com/thali_capetown.
This feature originally appeared in House and Leisure’s March 2017 issue.