The Banana leaf meal
Vanakam! (Welcome in Tamil)
I did not know how much I missed Indian food and particularly South indian food, till i moved to Europe. Firstly, Indian cuisine is very diverse, they are over 50 types of cuisines which are native to India and these cuisines vary from place to place according to the place’s geographical needs (it’s not just Spicy!). But let’s leave that for now, there was a period when I used to have a Banana leaf meal very frequently (We South Indians serve food on banana leaves on special occasions for a whole lot of people!). It did not feel special, it did not feel like it was cool, I never bothered to think why we ate on a damn leaf.
It had been over four years since I met my relatives back in India and ages since I ate from a Banana leaf. When I was in Kanyakumari, South India this May to meet my relatives and to attend my cousin’s engagement, things looked very different. I realised that everything I felt normal before, started feeling exotic and rich. We, from the Groom’s family visited the Bride’s family and we exchanged sweets and Gifts and after a lot of clicking of pictures, the engagement was over and we were invited to have lunch (As we were guests,we get to eat first. Yay!) at the back of the house (Which was an open field). I was super excited to see the Banana leaf again. This time I am consciously appreciating what this is all about.
The complete meal served on a special occasion like this would be called “Virundhu saapadu” (Festive meal), It is called differently in other parts of South India. The pointed end of the Banana leaf traditionally points to your left and it is kept right in front of you. You start off by sprinkling some water on the leaf to clean the leaf (In some places they do not serve you till the water is sprinkled). Now the food is being served, starting with salt at the left most corner of the top half (It is kept there so that it’s harder to reach and you require them in small quantities), side dishes like cucumber salad and dry vegetables gravy (To consume salads first) are kept next to them, Pickles (Lemon or Chilli) and Avial (It is a thick mixture of vegetables and coconut, seasoned with coconut oil and curry leaves) following it closely to it’s right. The variety of dishes offered vary from place to place (There are places where you are offered over 25 side dishes!). Rice is served on the bottom half of the leaf and you can control the quantity being served by just using your hands (you will get better at it with practice, haha), Usually you are offered Papadum (Lentil crackers, I love them!) along with the rice, this is followed by Paruppu curry (Lentils curry). I noticed that lot of people separated the rice served into two, I did not know why until minutes later when we were offered sambar (It’s again a lentil based gravy). I wanted the sambar and the guy who was serving me laughed because he knew that I messed up and he called the guy serving rice, So I was served extra rice and sambar on top of it, it was yummy. I like to mix my rice with the Papadum and the Chutney, it worked perfectly and I asked for another round of rice. My relatives were quite surprised to see me eating so much, because I was never known to be an eater. There are two more gravies on offer, Rasam (Tomato tamarind soup) and Mooru (Spiced Buttermilk), I did not want to take more rice so I stuck to my rice with Sambar. Once you are done eating, they serve you Paal payasam (Pudding made out of vermicelli, milk and roasted cashews) and Paarupu payasam (Mung bean pudding) on the leaf. Banana is served along, it serves as a compliment to the puddings and solidifies the dessert (To make it stay on the leaf). Once you finish eating, you always close the top leaf side over the lower leaf side which signifies that you have enjoyed your meal and you will visit again. It’s considered disrespectful to fold the lower leaf side over the top leaf side, as it’s done solemnly in occasions such as memorials.
When you think about it, India being a water scarce country, It is probably one of the most eco-friendly disposal systems. The Banana leaves are biodegradable and they also serve as food for the cattle. They are healthy, as they release antioxidants (polyphenols) upon the layering of hot rice, which are similar to the ingredients of green tea. I know for a fact that the rice tastes so much better on the banana leaf (I have heard my Mom mention this like a million times! ) and Yes! we eat using our hands, It’s a strong part of our culture to wash our hands with soap before and after eating. The Banana leaf meal system has an ergonomic and scientific side to it, which is amazing I think.
I personally think it tastes even better, when you wear a Veshti 😀 (Traditional long loin cloth and not a dress!) and take a dip in the lake afterwards. It’s part of the culture for the person serving food to believe that he/she is extremely blessed to serve food to another person, while the person served takes it as the highest act of kindness (There is a common saying that you never forget the ones who feed you). It’s quite nice to have a bit of history and culture with something as fundamental as food.
Would you have a meal on a Banana leaf? Let me know in the comments below 😀
Nandri! (Thanks in Tamil)