Dubai: Let’s start off with a disclaimer: The Shahenshah Thali is not for the weak-minded, or more so – the ones with a poor appetite.
A piece of tandoori roti, dipped in velvety paneer makhani – that’s all it took to calm the moaning whale in my stomach on a hot summer’s day. While these were just two dishes out of the 36 assortments in front of me, biting into the soft, chewy, almost heavenly, bite of paneer covered in a rich, thick gravy, from the Shahenshah Thali took me back to a very fond memory.
I was 18 (much older now) when I had my first taste of paneer. To all the vegetarians out there – preposterous, I know.
A few of my friends and I were in the mood for some butter chicken and naan on a Sunday. This was in India. So, a friend suggested that we head to a newly opened restaurant near college.
We finally reached the restaurant, only to find out it was purely vegetarian. We eventually decided to stay on at the restaurant, and after what felt like years of decision-making, we all agreed to get the butter naan we mainly wanted, and a paneer makhani or cottage cheese in tomato curry.
When the food finally arrived, every one grabbed a piece of butter naan, and dipped a portion of it into the hot, aromatic gravy. That one bite changed everything for me – the naan was soft and crisp at the same time, but the paneer was tender. My taste-buds were so overjoyed that if this were an animated movie, there would be a happy song playing in this particular scenario.
Sorry… this is not the tale of that paneer; rather this is the tale of 36 other dishes on the heaviest thali or plate in Dubai, included with the paneer I’m so brazenly gushing over.
How did I conquer this kingdom of food? I didn’t.
The thali has been one of the most demanded food plates amongst the Indian community. Not only does it satiate the hungry diner, but is also priced at a good rate. Often used for ceremonial purposes, the concept of the thali is said to have emerged from pre-historic India, and were used to serve emperors and other officials.
When I first stepped into Haveli’s at the India Club in Dubai, the ambience at the restaurant gave me a glimpse into royal Indian dining. I was in for the Shahenshah Thali.
When it finally arrived, my prospects took a whole new turn. I went in with an attitude of ‘Yes, it weighs 11 kilograms, but how big can it actually be? I could eat anything with the kind of appetite I have’, only to find myself thinking ‘you did not think this through’.
Serving the platter is a two-person job, and you know when the thali is arriving, especially because a bell is rung till it is placed on the table. Quite an entrance for a Shahenshah (king of kings).
When my turn to be served came, the entire thali was finally positioned in front of me, challenging me. But, things took a more interesting turn...
Well, I started with the pink rose water, munched on a couple of fryums, started on the dahi vada, and journeyed my way into the other small bowls in front of me. At first I was at a good pace, but 10 minutes in… I realised the thali had actually devoured me, instead of it being the other way around.
You must be wondering, what’s on this thali that she’s writing so much about? Let me tell you, 36 is a really big number. We all should try giving everything above 10 a little credit for being quite a high number.
On that note, here’s what was on my plate –
Beverages: Chaas (buttermilk), which is literally the solution to quench your thirst on a hot summer day, and Rose water.
Vegetable delights: Carrots, cucumbers, sliced onions with lemon and green chillies, curd, and raita.
Chutneys: Green, red chutneys, dahi chutney (mint and onion).
Savouries: Palak Pakoda, veg croquette, samosa, all of which are also accompanied by an assortment of kebabs – seekh, paneer and gobi (cauliflower) tikka – mounted on a miniature hibachi-style grill plate.
Chaat: Aloo chaat, dahi vada, moong chaat, and coloured boondi.
Fried accompaniments: Multi-coloured fryums (far far) and Papad.
Breads and Grains: The main course features the traditional wheat roti, a kulcha, and a wheat paratha, served alongside the Vegetable Biriyani and Jeera Rice.
Curries: Of course, you need something to dip you roti into (or, maybe use it as a side to the Jeera rice). The Shahenshah Thali combines a range of flavours all over India – in the form of – Kadhi Pakora curry, Mix Vegetable Sabzi, Paneer Makhani, Methi Aloo, Cabbage Thoran, Channa Masala, and your everyday phenomenal Dal masala.
The word ‘stressed’ spelt backwards is ‘desserts’, and that’s exactly what’s included in the Shahenshah Thali. The thali had (my personal favourite) Gulab Jamun, and Gajar ka Halwa, as well.
I was ready for dessert in 12 minutes.
Post-meal decisions are usually the right ones
After my meal, I decided to speak to Gobind Chhetri, Head Chef, India Club, wondering what actually went behind the making of this large platter. I came to the restaurant prepared with a set of questions, and left the restaurant with a happy heart, and an even happier stomach.
While he walked me through the entire process of preparing the Thali from start to finish, Chef Gobind said:
“We introduced the Thali six months ago, where we incorporated a variety of Indian flavours. In terms of demand, the Thali has been favoured by several of our diners, given the present pandemic scenario. While we refrain from serving the Thali on Thursdays and Fridays (in order to align with the COVID-19 protocol), we often receive compliments, each time a diner orders this. We are a team of five, and it usually takes 30 minutes to prepare the entire platter. We serve about six to ten plates, every day and in some cases, even 10 to 15.”
For the love of food, give it a shot
Apart from all the self-involved thoughts I’ve had ever since the beginning of this story, eating the thali was a true delight. An array of colours, each food bowl had something different to it. Even the salads, mind you. I don’t know if it was the hunger, but whatever it was… I was able to understand that the Chef had carefully prepared this entire meal with love and honour for India and its people.
The rich authentic flavours took me on a trip all over the country and back. I didn’t even know that was possible, especially since I’ve barely explored the country myself.
It was a good decision, a wise one, I would say.
The biggest of its kind in Dubai, the thali comes in non-vegetarian and vegetarian versions. The former is priced at Dh149, whereas the latter comes up to Dh99. But, there is a caveat - Haveli is part of India Club and the club needs a membership or referral to get in.