The South Indian Banana Leaf Story
There is no journey as intriguing as the journey of food. Every dish that we eat today has travelled to us over the years, having adapted itself to various elements on the way. For example, a lot of us may not be aware of the fact that samosas aren’t of Indian origin at all! They actually originated in the Middle East and were called sanbosag.
While you chew on that (pun unintended), let’s focus on something that a lot of us are aware of – the South Indian banana leaf meal, which, as we all know, originated in Kerala. This traditional meal is called ‘sadhya’, meaning ‘banquet’ in Malayalam.
In a Tam Brahm household, everyone is a rice eater. Having grown up in such a household, I was always exposed to the aroma of delicious curries, subtly spiced with red or green chilies, wafting from the kitchen. These curries are poured onto and mixed with rice and eaten with a dry or wet vegetable. Before you ask, no, we do not eat on banana leaves everyday. In fact, eating on such leaves is a very rare occasion, now reserved not just for Onam, but also for weddings, poojas and other ceremonies. But have you ever wondered about its history?
The practice of eating food on a clean banana leaf was started in Kerala. Most people then lived a simple existence, because of which steel and other metal plates were never even considered. Besides, banana leaves were easily accessible in the state, owing to the abundance of banana trees around. Families lived in houses with sprawling courtyards which were surrounded by trees bulging with fruits, vegetables and the quintessential banana leaves. My grandmother lived in one such house and I remember her telling me how all they had to do was pluck fresh vegetables off of one of the many trees fringing the kitchen doors and cook! What’s more, eating on these leaves was always hygienic, far more so than using plates that may or may not have been washed well.
And so, even though these meals have found their way to continents across the globe, they are still served on banana leaves everywhere.
Your typical sadhya includes items like rice, parupu (dal), toran and aviyal (dry vegetables), kootu (wet vegetable), kootan (curries like sambhar), rasam, pappadam (fried papad), pachadi (raita), vada, banana chips, jangri (jalebi), payasam (kheer), curd, buttermilk and condiments like fresh pickles made with mangoes, gooseberries or lemons, according to the season. Today, a wider variety is available, with some caterers and restaurants offering puri masala and aamras during mango season, sitafal and strawberry basundi and even spoons to eat with. (Something a true South Indian would seriously frown upon!) But the original, untouched version is the one mentioned above, where families would sit cross-legged on the floor and eat with their hands.
Eating a sadhya with family is tradition. For me, it evokes memories of eating a simple yet mouth-watering meal at my grandmother’s house, with my cousins. These at-home sadhyas would also come with some pampering from the mothers and grandmothers who would specially prepare sweets like soft nai appams flavoured with powdered cardamom for the kids. Nai appams are sweet round dumplings shallow-fried in ghee, made using jaggery and rice. We would sit on the floor, talking and laughing, while enjoying the food that was put in front of us, the food that with just one bite, would take us back to our roots.
Coming back to its history, serious hard work would go into planning a sadhya. Aviyal, for example, is made with as many as 12 to 15 vegetables, held together with a fragrant coconut gravy. So, the chopping of these vegetables would begin a day in advance. Since coconuts are used abundantly in South Indian food, they would also be grated and stored neatly in advance. Some recipes call for pure coconut milk, which would be freshly squeezed out for meal preparations and was quite a task in those days. This preparation of ingredients made this a get-together of sorts, as all the ladies would come together and help each other out. Call it the ancient version of ‘kitty parties’, if you will! Even today, when there is a function or an event the next day, the ladies of my house wake up early and gather at one home to help with all the cooking. It just goes to show that food is all about community and bonding.
In terms of the way a sadhya is served, the age-old method is followed till date, with a special place being reserved on the leaves for certain dishes. The bottom right-hand side of the banana leaf is always saved for a teaspoon of payasam, owing to the belief in beginning your meal with something sweet. Even today, you will always find that the first item put on your leaf is a few drops of payasam! Mind you, the payasam would also be eaten by hand. This technique of using your hand to swipe food off the banana leaf enables the nutrient properties of the leaf to mix with the food that’s eaten. These leaves lend the food a delicious, earthy flavour and actually have anti-bacterial properties that kill germs!
While this ancient method of eating good, wholesome food has evolved with the times, the true essence of it remains the same. Looking at a meal on a banana leaf today, you will still find these basic elements – rice, dal, sweets and a tiny whiff of my land — of ripe coconuts, warm sunshine and happy times.