Vegetarian food doesn't have to be bland

December 8, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Thali simply means "plate," and depending on which region of India you're in, the thalis will vary. Always served in individual stainless bowls, they offer a wide range of textures and flavors, with varying degrees of heat. We found one small cafe on Devon, where the thalis are truly unique.

There are several vegetarian havens in West Rogers Park; one of the latest is Jai Hind, a double storefront along Devon Avenue. The menu ranges from small, fried snacks to a vast array of homemade sweets. But among the savory items, the thali platter is certainly one of their specialties. Think of it as a veggie sampler tray.

"Different kinds of vegetables: rice in there, curry in there, sometimes some snacks," said Vallabh Patel, the owner of Jai Hind.

Thalis vary, depending on the region they originate from. At Jai Hind, the predominant style is from Gujarat, in the Northwestern corner of India.

"Usually in Gujarat, people like to eat a little spicy, so that's why it's called spicy," Patel said.

One example is the mutter paneer: sweet peas and homemade cheese are bathed in fiery chiles, making it the most lethal of the assortment. But that's why you'll always have something like white rice or homemade chapatti to absorb it.

Speaking of which, feel free to use that flatbread to scoop up items like the sauteed okra. They're first trimmed, then added to a pot filled with toasted mustard and cumin seeds, as well as a bit of chili powder.

Cooked potatoes are cubed, then heated up with a garam masala - or spice blend - plus crunchy cashews and plump raisins, finished with a bit of pomegranate for texture and color.

Dohklas are made from chickpea flour; they're scented with mustard seeds, a few shards of chile and some fresh cilantro. There's also a soup, called sambar, plus some crispy wafers, or papad.

To finish off your thali, there's always one sweet compartment - in this case, bundi ladu, a kind of Indian fritter in a sugary glaze. A hot cup of masala chai, or tea, is the beverage of choice.

Thali platters are always best-suited to diners who simply like to taste a bit of everything.

"It's a combination of pretty much everything in it and you can taste everything and you can taste a little bit of each of these things," said Pervaiz Usman, a co-owner of Jai Hind.

The thali at Jai Hind doesn't change much, but they do also offer a number of Indian snacks and sweets, including one called pani puri, which I highly recommend you ask for.

Jai Hind
2537-39 W. Devon Ave.

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