“Indians are the Italians of Asia and vice versa. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is the music inside the body and music is the food inside the heart.” Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram
One thing I find seriously amusing and a tad wasteful, is rice. To be precise, rice given to you when you order any curry at a sub-continental Indian restaurant. I’m not the biggest fan of rice so I always order a naan with my meal. But no matter what, they will always bring a (hefty) side of basmati (baasmaatee!!) rice for the table if ordering in or will give you a ubiquitous, tightly-packed white polystyrene container filled to the brim with rice. If they were South African Indian, they would give the rice in a Flora container but we shall leave that for some enterprising young upstart. Anyway, rice is a staple food in India and is consumed with basically every meal – even breakfast. It’s one of the better tasting carbohydrates, is quite healthy and its versatility makes it perfect for any occasion. This is why you always get rice even though you may have purchased another carbohydrate – the assumption is that you will probably still eat that rice with the food after you’re done with the roomali roti.
Yes, they did bring a lot of rice with the food at Thava. But I’m not complaining. Everything was fantastic.
Thava, in Midrand opened just a few months ago following the runaway success of the first Thava in Norwood. Despite being a rather recent addition to the Jozi food landscape, the original restaurant is a firm favourite of many people in the city. The restaurant specialises in South Indian cuisine specifically from the coastal state of Kerala. They don’t stick to just South Indian dishes so you will find the same food that you would find at any regular Indian restaurant. I was invited there for a tasting session. Typical for an Indian joint, I left there about 5kg heavier and completely satiated.
One of the appeals of this new branch in Midrand is that it’s the branch that will take innovation quite seriously. The Norwood branch has become a familiar favourite and tampering with that formula might not be the smartest thing to do. Once South Africans are comfortable with a type of food, they tend to expect exactly the same everywhere they go. It’s quite funny when the actual dish, when cooked in its country of origin, tastes nothing like the local version yet that local version is used as a yard stick. It’s a bit like Fanta. The Midrand branch is their innovation hub. New flavours, different techniques and varying styles are to be tried here. This branch will focus on incorporating true Indian cuisine that is now only available in the subcontinent, rather than just what has already exported. This came through nicely well with the Sichuan Chicken that was offered as a starter. Indo-Chinese fusion food is quite a big deal in India, especially in the North. Most South Africans will wonder about this “supposed attempt at fusion” and not order it because it does not seem to be authentic. However, this does bring about the another issue – even though the restaurant is known for its departure from the cuisine offered by its sibling, people aren’t going to order something just because it’s on the menu. We shall solve that problem a bit later on…
Thava is situated in the Carlswald Décor Centre near the offices of my new favourite music station, Mix 93.8 FM. You really need preset this station on your car radio. You are missing out on life if you don’t. But I digress! Walking into the restaurant gives you a feeling of Indianness. However, it’s probably not the nice type that you have pictured in your head right now. It felt very much like that temple hall in Unit 1, Chatsworth that I went to sometime in December for a hurdee. The décor is very hall like. The idea is to utilise this for large functions and maybe hurdees and weddings, which would save many a lot of money, seeing that they wouldn’t have to trek down to Chatsworth to get the same cosy feel. I don’t think I could go to the Midrand branch for an intimate date but then again, that’s what the Norwood branch is for. This branch is for the experience of the food.
We sit down and are greeted with two dishes – a pre-dinner treat somewhat like resembling sev and a Bombay Crush. The sev-like dish is out of this world. It had this crunchiness, which then exploded with the exact amount of spice before melting away and disappearing into your body. It basically kicked regular sev’s ass. The Bombay Crush was equally amazing. So far so good…
Next up was starters. But before that, a little treat.
Innovation 1: The open tandoor
Naan is bread made in quite an interesting way using seriously hot coals and a tandoor (clay oven). It starts of like a normal roti but that’s where it ends. To “roll” the naan bread, you shape a thick ball of dough into a small circle and then fling it from hand to hand until it reaches the desired thinness. It’s then transferred to a stone (here it was a round metal stone with a cloth covering it) and then you reach in and stick it onto the side of the tandoor. You should try not to stay there too long as you will get roasted. Anyway, you then cook the naan till it’s ready. We got to do it all! IT WAS SO COOL! And just like us, if you ask the waiter nicely, he will allow you to do this as well. I thought this was a fantastic touch and amazing experience. Contrary to popular belief, South African’s of Indian descent don’t often get to do this kind of thing.
We get back to our seats as the starters arrive. Remember I mentioned that there still exists the problem of getting people to order new and different things on the menu?
Innovation 2: Tapas
Thava has introduced the concept of “Indian tapas” (which translates to “tavankal” in Tamil – they should use this word) which allows you to sample a variety of dishes rather than ordering just a single dish. The starters were presented in this form. The tomato and what seemed like mint (no, it was not pudhina chutney) soup was beautifully presented in the form of the Indian flag. It was one of the unforgettable tastes of the night, which is saying a lot. The puri patha was the best I’ve ever eaten that was not cooked by a family member (or friend’s parent) and there was an interesting vegetable pattie, which resembled katchori balls that made me raise my eyebrows in happiness after just the first bite. The fusion flavour of the aforementioned Sichuan Chicken was also pretty spectacular. I’d love to see and try more of this type of food.
Innovation 3: The travelling tandoor
So they’ve decided that cooking the food in the kitchen is just not on and it’s a better experience to have the food cooked right in front of you. A private chef will prepare a set menu at your table. It’s basically like watching the Food Channel happen right in front of you except you get to eat the food. I like this concept. They didn’t do this for us but it’s quite intriguing. I should maybe organise a big tamasha for some friends and family…
So even though we were stuffed after the starters, along comes the main course consisting of vegetarian, Methi Mutter Malai, Lamb Bandami, Dhall and the exclusive Kasthuri Chicken. This is complimented by rice, various naans including another exclusive, the Kerala Paratha. These two exclusives, I think, validates Thava’s place as one of Jozi’s best restaurants. The taste of these was rather indescribable. The Kasthuri Chicken teases you with a mixture of spices that you may find familiar but cannot pinpoint. Each mouthful makes you hungrier for more. It’s perfectly complemented by the Kerala Paratha, which also tastes like something familiar, just better. Currently Thava are the only Indian restaurant that cooks these two dishes. This is reason enough to visit this restaurant.
Innovation 4: Broadening your horizons
South Africans don’t really have experience with the complete diaspora of Indian cuisine – it is somewhat limited to South African Indian cuisine and food from North India. So Thava plans on holding themed evenings, where food from a state in India is showcased on a specific evening featuring the best that the state has to offer. So basically, cuisine from Rajasthan or Tamil Nadu or Uttar Pradesh will be cooked in their traditional ways and served. It is so exciting that cooking styles and flavours vary so greatly in different areas of one amazing country, and we get try it all!
At this point, I am stuffed and ready to lie spread-eagled on the floor and pass out. But no, there still is dessert. Three dainty dishes are beautifully placed in front of me – vermicelli, soji and gulab jamun. My mum makes better soji and vermicelli but gosh, the gulab jamun… it was the gulab jamun to end all other gulab jamuns. The taste, the texture, the syrup, the afterglow, the everything. It was perfect. I left the restaurant thoroughly content with life and with a smile on my face. The food is great. That’s all I can really say.
When to go: Thava is open seven days a week for lunch and supper. Either branch is just as good as mentioned above. Try it. You might just like it.
How to get there: It’s quite easy to get to the Midrand branch. If you’re coming from Sunninghill, just follow Maxwell Drive, through Waterfall, then into Midrand as it changes to Harry Gaulun, then keep driving till you see Carlswald Décor Centre on your right. It’s easily accessible from the New Road offramp on the N1. Turn toward Crowthorne and keep driving on New Road until you get to Lever Road. Turn left and after about 300m, you will see Carlswald Décor Centre on your left. Cost: Mains are priced from around R65 – R125 with the tapas portions just under half that price. If two of you go out, I suggest getting four tapas portions rather than two mains. It’s funner that way.
Anything Else: I don’t actually pronounce thava with the “v” as I grew up knowing it to be pronounced as “thaa-wa.” What is it? It’s a flat pan, usually made of cast iron that is widely used in Asia to make flat breads. It’s also great for making toasted sandwiches and to stir-fries that aren’t liquid heavy. I need to get one for my house…