Sunday, September 05, 2010

A quick primer on the use and prepping of a Banana Leaf

Historically banana leaves were commonly used as plates at meal times in parts of Southern India.

While the advent of stainless steel and melamine plates, the banana leaf is no longer used as a plate in households where it was commonly used, until a couple of decades ago.

In Southern India, most temples still serve meals on banana leaves. You will also get to see the banana leaf being used as a plate at traditional South Indian brahmin weddings. In some cases, you no longer will be seated cross legged on the floor, you may be seated at canteen style tables, but will still be served on a leaf.

Eating off a banana leaf involves a practiced technique to keep all the liquid items like sambhar, rasam, dhali tove (lentils), vegetable curries and payasams (kheer) from running (flowing) off the leaf and onto the floor. This normally involves forming a sturdy well in the center of your rice and instructing the servers to pour your curry of choice into the center. The technique also extends into how you mix your rice and curry in little portions without destroying the structural stability of that well.

For people who are not familiar or comfortable with this technique, most South Indian restaurants that strive to be authentic(in the North of India and abroad)  have come up with 2 innovations. The first is to provide a set of katoris (small bowls) placed on the leaf, for the gravy items. The second is to cut the banana leaf to fit inside a plate with high rims. Both techniques serve to save the unaccustomed diner the embarassment of having curry flow off their leaves and onto their laps.

Etiquette pointers when eating off a Banana Leaf:
A meal eaten on a banana leaf is traditionally eaten with ones right hand without implements while the left hand rests on your lap.
Before you are served any food, you will be provided with some water in a glass, sprinkle a few drops of water with your right hand onto the leaf and brush it off with the lower edge of your palm away from your body. (the leaves would be clean, this is more symbolic than an actual cleansing process)
When you are finished eating, fold the leaf along the spine away from you, never towards you.

Prepping the Banana Leaf
If you are planning to serve food on a banana leaf or cook in it. Wash the leaf with plain water and wipe dry with a clean cloth.
Sometimes, you may find a white fluff on the underside of the leaf. This too can be wiped off with a damp cloth.

Banana leaves are an excellent material to wrap fish and chicken in - for steaming. It traps all the moisture inside without destroying the taste of the dish.

If you want to cook/steam in the leaf:
Fold the leaf in half along its spine.
Using a sharp knife, cut off the spine in one smooth motion.
Make sure none of the tough spine remains, it will make folding the leaf difficult  and the leaves will tear.
Then cut the halves into whatever size and shape you require.
A kitchen scissors will work as well as a knife

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