Monday, December 6, 2010

Guide to eating from a banana leaf

It’s interesting how a simple banana leaf, most commonly used in India by Hindus to serve food and globally by the Filipinos and some Buddhist cultures, lends an air of celebration akin to finery worn on special occasions. In fact, many a times the banana leaf is also used for cooking. Rice, meat or dough is wrapped in the leaf and steamed or cooked on low flame. This is very common in Kerala, Thailand, Caribbean islands and other coastal countries across the world.

Those who have been brought up in traditional South Indian homes would be quite familiar with the usage of this ubiquitous leaf. But for tourists who have never tried this before, eating from a banana leaf could be a cultural extravaganza. So here’s a guide to those unaware on why and how to eat from a banana leaf.

• Hot food served on a banana leaf takes nutritional and medicinal values of the banana tree.
• Eating from a banana leaf is like eating on a fresh plate for each meal.
• The leaf is bio-degradable unlike plastic plates.
• Ghee and oil do not stick to the banana leaf and so enjoying their flavors is easier.

Dos and Don’ts
• Place the leaf in such a way that the broader side of the leaf is the lower part. It gives you a wider space for more items.
• Sprinkle water on the leaf and wipe the leaf before you start.
• Don’t begin eating as soon as the food is served. Wait to start together with others.
• In India, meals are served on a banana leaf in a particular order starting with the daal, sambar, a kuzhambu (gravy either red gravy or coconut based), rasam (made with tamarind extract, tomato and pepper), curds and payasam (sweet kheer) afterwards. This order though basic might vary in different regions.
• Your skills are best tested when trying to slurp the rasam or payasam with your fingers / palms. You should not let this drip so it would be helpful to hold the lower part of the leaf slightly up.
• As this leaf is auspicious, don’t smoke or consume alcohol during a meal served on a banana leaf, especially if it is a special occasion.
• In some places, only vegetarian food is served on a banana leaf whereas in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh non-vegetarian is also served. So be aware of the customs of a community.
• Vegetables are placed on the top half of the leaf, and rice, sweets, and snacks on the other half.
• Avoid using cutlery while eating from a banana leaf. Eat with your fingers.
• It is not necessary to taste every dish served on the banana leaf, but you must finish everything as it is considered respectful.
• After finishing your meal, express appreciation for the meal.
• Using a finger bowl is not encouraged after a meal but now this is given for the sake of convenience in most restaurants. However, during weddings or functions at home, this is avoided.
• The banana leaf should not be left open after finishing the meal. It should be folded with the top half covering the bottom half which signifies that you have enjoyed your meal and you will visit again. If the bottom half is folded over the top, it is usually considered disrespectful as this is done only in solemn functions such as death.
• Do not leave the table until others have finished or until the host requests you to. If you must, ask permission from the host before leaving.

The next time you are in South India, try not to miss a celebration that gives you a chance to savor traditional South Indian food on a fresh banana leaf. But if there are no occasions during your visit, you can always try traditional South Indian eating joints in Chennai such as Amaravathi, Karaikudi, Zameendar, Anjappar, Saravana Bhavan, Ente Keralam etc. It’s an experience that you must try!

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