South Indian Thali

by Joan Greenblatt

ThaliThere are a few special businesses in India that have become institutions. The South Indian restaurant and hotel chain Dasaprakash is one of them. During many excursions to the South Indian port city of Chenni (Madras), we often heard about this special restaurant, but never made it there.

After many years, on a trip to the Southern Los Angeles area of “little India,” we finally arrived. After a few initial visits where we sampled authentic South Indian vegetarian cuisine, we approached the owner—the youngest son of the founder, Madhu—who agreed to share recipes and stories with us. So one afternoon, my husband and I arrived at Dasaprakash with camera, recorder, and a hearty appetite.

The story of Dasaprakash is the story of Madhu’s family. Madhu’s grandfather was very religious and by his example instilled this in his sons. In fact, Madhu’s father, Govinda Rao, anticipated that his two brothers were about to renounce family life and realized that it was up to him to make a living for the entire family. With little education, he decided that feeding people would be his answer to a livelihood, as well as way for him to be of service to others.

Govinda began his business and named it Dasaprakash. The word “dasa” means servant and “prakash” is light or illumination, “that which illumines.” He vowed to donate a portion of whatever little profits he made to those less fortunate than himself. From the start he was wildly successful, surpassing all expectations, and was able to open the first 200 room hotel in Chenni. This was to be the forerunner of several more hotels and restaurants throughout India and the world. Both Govinda and Dasaprakash were to grow to become legendary: the restaurant for its exceptionally pure vegetarian food, and Govinda for the good works he performed. It included feeding the poor and providing funds to help them observance Hindu religious customs. Govinda’s home in Chenni became a stopping point for religious and political leaders, all who grew to respect and admire him.

As the years went on and Dasaprakash expanded, each member of the family was given their own business with the injunction that whatever they did for their restaurant they must remember that service to mankind was never to be given up.

The recipes supplied by Madhu are definitely not for the casual cook. It takes a bit of dedication to find the full list of ingredients, follow the recipe, and patiently prepare the meal. For those who don’t live near a metropolitan area where most Asian grocery stores are located, you can check your closest city for a store that may be able to send you ingredients by mail.

For the brave of heart, the time and effort is well worth it. The food you are about to experience belongs to one of the oldest continuous traditions in the world. Since South India was spared much of the cultural dilution from foreign invasion, the customs, traditions and food has been handed down from grandmother-to-mother-to-daughter for generations.

I remember staying a few days in a traditional home in Madurai where a cow resided in the courtyard of the house. Milk was taken daily from her and made into yogurt, butter, and ghee, while her dried dung was used for cooking fuel. Next to the cow unhusked rice was pounded daily for use with each meal—much the same way households prepared it one-hundred years ago. There is great beauty in a culture and tradition that has thrived for centuries.

[image2_full]I also remember the daily feeding of the poor at Ramanasramam, the Ashram of the sage Ramana Maharshi. Before anyone else is fed, expectant faces line up to wait for food. The joy of being fed that was reflected in their faces had a profound and lasting effect on me. We generally take food for granted in the West. In India, food is both a blessing to prepare and to share. Even if one has only two grains, sharing one of them with a hungry person is a sacred duty.

Through the success of Dasaprakash, Govinda’s family continues the tradition of public service consistent with the founder’s noble vision.

Sambar (Lentil Soup)
¾ C toor dhal
2 T canola oil or ghee
½ t turmeric powder
3 medium onions, finely diced
2 tomatoes, diced
2-3 T tamarind paste or 1/8 C of fresh lemon juice
2 C vegetables, chopped (carrot, zucchini, string beans, etc.)
1 t salt

Spice paste (grind together in a blender)
1 t roasted cumin seeds
2-3 green chilles, fresh, deseeded
2 T coconut, freshly grated or finely ground dried unsweetened
2 T coriander seeds, soaked for 10 minutes in water
¾ C tomatoes, chopped
2 T chopped curry (optional) and cilantro leaves

Garnish (optional)

1 T canola oil
½ t black mustard seeds
½ t urad dhal
10 curry leaves
asafetida, pinch

1. Cook dhal in a heavy duty pot, add enough water so that it reaches at least 1” above the dhal. Add turmeric powder and cook on medium heat until the dhal is soft, about 40 minutes.
1. Mash the cooked dhal well.
2. Heat oil in another pot and lightly sauté the onions.
3. Mix in all the other ingredients, dhal and ground spice paste along with 2-3 cups of water, dhal should be soup-like.
4. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer for about 30-45 minutes until vegetables are tender and the mixture becomes thickened, taste and adjust salt.
5. Add garnish: heat oil in a small pan and fry black mustard seeds, urad dhal, curry leaves and a pinch of asafetida. Add to sambar.

Mixed Vegetable Kurma
Coconut paste
1 T canola oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic, cloves
1-2 green chilies, remove seeds
3 cardamom pods, remove skin and crush seeds
10-12 cashew nuts
ginger, 1” piece, grated
1 t coriander powder
½ C coconut, shredded
2 t poppy seeds

Base
1½ T canola oil
2 onions, chopped
2 garlic, diced
2 tomatoes, chopped
1½ t salt
½ t turmeric powder
5 C mixed diced vegetables (potatoes, carrots, green beans, cauliflower, or peas), boil separately and drain.)

1. To make paste: heat oil in pan, sauté onion, garlic, chilies and cardamom, add cashew nuts, ginger, coriander powder, coconut, poppy seeds; remove from heat and in a blender blend well, add a little water to make it into a paste.
2. To make base: heat oil in another pan and fry additional onions and garlic; when cooked add and fry tomatoes, then add mixed cooked vegetables, salt, turmeric and coconut paste and simmer for 10-15 minutes until all flavors merge together.
To Serve: The traditional thali has steaming rice in the center of the plate. In separate small bowls are the sambar, kurma, stir-fried vegetables, plain yogurt or raita, and pickle condiments.