Fast food was not invented in America. I’m not realy sure that it was invented in India, either, but the Indian version of a fast meal has been around longer and is, in the opinion of many, vastly superior to the American version.

So what is Indian fast food? Of course, there’s nothing faster than grabbing some street food. Unfortunately, it may taste great, but is not always suitable to delicate foreign tummies. (Some people will regard this as a bit of an understatement.) And most street food consists of grease and carbohydrates, which may not be the best thing if you go overboard. But it’s not the only possibility for a fast meal.

Everywhere in India, you’ll find thali or ‘meals’ restaurants. A thali meal consists of various different items, which vary according to where you are in India. In the north, you’ll generally get rice, dhal, vegetables, pickle and chapatis. Some places are fancier and may include a sweet, a second vegetable dish, salad and buttermilk. Most of these places are vegetarian, though there are some that are non-vegetarian as well.

My favorite thali restaurant is a chain called Rajdhani. You’ll find them in Delhi (on Baba Kharak Singh Marg near Connaught Place), Mumbai, Gurgaon and a few other places. It’s a high class place, but it’s still only rs250 (less than $5) for a great vegetarian meal. When you sit down, a waiter comes with an elegant pitcher and offers water to wash your hands. An empty thali (large steel plate) with several little bowls is set before you, and then several waiters appear with all the various items. One waiter specializes in buttermilk, another in rice, another in pickles, another in vegetable dishes, etc. Altogether, there are at least a dozen different items. If you happen to prefer Jain-style food, which has no onion or garlic, they put a little green strip of paper so the waiters know not to give you certain dishes. You can also get more of anything you really like. Most thali restaurants are considerably cheaper than Rajdhani, of course. Many offer good meals for less than rs50. I’ve seen some meals on offer for as little as rs15, though they didn’t look too inspiring.

And why do I think it’s better? Well, consider your basic McDonald’s meal. It has been scientifically formulated to taste good and to leave you feeling unsatisfied. This has to do with the proportion of salt, sugar and fat. There are other issues, of course, but this in itself is enough for present purposes. They want you to feel unsatisfied so you keep ordering more. And this is one of the major reasons that Americans are becoming obese at an alarming rate. It’s not just fast-food restaurants that have latched onto this magic proportion. Most of the manufacturers of processed food in the US also make use of it, with the same result.

Now consider the Indian thali meal. It’s just normal food, freshly made. Nothing manipulated. And it’s usually delicious and satisfying. Choose your restaurants well, of course. They aren’t all great. Busy ones are more likely to be up to the mark. If there’s a line out the door, you’ve hit the jackpot!

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