Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Fork off!! – DOs and DON’Ts when eating from a banana leaf

So eating from a banana leaf is back in fashion, not that it ever went out of fashion in my village/home and million others like that in the south. Every traditional marriage ends with it, at least as far as the guests are concerned. We’ve all heard about the whole etiquette thing when it comes to eating off a plate – knife in the right hand, fork on the left (what about lefties?) – and such like. But what about the humble banana leaf? While a banana leaf is not conducive to a buffet system, it has a lot of advantages and some etiquette that goes with it. Here it is then, a quick (meaning not comprehensive) and interesting (meaning full of stories) guide to the banana leaf.

Eating off a banana leaf is not just convenient and time saving – no washing dishes and you can be sure that nobody has eaten from your leaf before. Eating form a banana leaf also adds to the taste and to the flavour of the food, no matter what cuisine you are having.

Firstly, the placing of the leaf. This is by far the most important. The tapering end of the leaf should always be to the left of the eater. This is the default position of the leaf, and the most ideal. Ask me not why this is, it just is.

An alternate way of placing the leaf would be in the vertical fashion, in which case the tapering end would be on the top and the widest portion nearest to you. But this is only in extreme cases.

Next is the serving. Very important: Rice should never, I repeat, never be served on an otherwise empty leaf. There’s a reason for this. During a death ceremony, or any funerary rite associated with the dead, it has been our custom to use pindas (balls made of rice) which represent the dead person and the two generations that came before him/her (and trust me, I know). And a banana leaf is used for this purpose, and the rice from which the pandas are to be made served on to it (an empty leaf). So unless you are performing a death ceremony, make sure that you never serve rice on am empty leaf. Even some sambar/ little bit of pickle should be on the leaf before serving rice.

On an interesting side note, the death ceremony also affects yet another aspect of eating from a banana leaf, namely the number of times you can put rice on the leaf during one serving. This number must never be three times. It can be one big portion served once, two smaller portions or four. If the person you are serving only says “enough” after the third portion of you have served, make sure you sprinkle some more rice so as to make it four times. So why not three? As you saw above, during the death ceremony, we make three pandas, and when putting rice on the leaf prior to making the pindas, it is always done three times (once for each panda). That’s why.

If you’ve eaten from a banana leaf at restaurants or at your house, you would’ve noticed that the playa, chutney, vegetables, etc. is always on the top half of the leaf, while the bottom half is reserved for rice and rasam, and this is how it should be. It not only makes for good common sense – eating your rice from the top half would be darned inconvenient as you would have to reach out more – it also has an interesting story behind it.

Once apparently, after Rama returned triumphant into Ayodha, a pooja was organised. Rama had to go away for a while, so he was missing when the food was being served. The people/guests waited for a while, and when Rama did not come back and hunger got the better of them, they started to have their food, leaving one leaf for Rama. All except Hanuman. Rama came back after a while and saw everybody was enjoying the food, all except Hanuman. Touched by his devotion, Rama invited Hanuman to at him, off his leaf. So Rama sat on one side of the leaf, while Hanuman sat on the opposite side. Now Hanuman, being a monkey, a vanara, had no use for such things as rice or roti. He wanted the fruits and the vegetables. So one side of the leaf had rice, while the other had the vegetables. And that’s how it’s been for ages.

Food tastes better when eaten with your own hands. So while cutlery is not a strict no-no, it should be avoided to the maximum extent possible. Cutlery could also tear the leaf, and you’ll have to eat off the floor. Also, eating using cutlery, especially when you’re sitting on the floor and eating from a banana leaf is difficult. Just you try!

Again, food should preferable only be eaten with your right hand, they say. This is not just because a overwhelming majority of the world’s population is right-handed, but also because we use our left hand to clean up after we’re done downloading. But if you’re comfortable, eating your food with the same hand you use to wash your arse, go right ahead.

Now that we’re done with the food and had a hearty meal, it’s time to leave. This where the question arises whether to fold the leaf or not. Take no risk. Leaf the leaf as it is. Some say that you should fold the leaf towards you to signify you like the food or to signify you would be coming back again. Conversely, folding the leaf away from you signifies you are not thoroughly satisfied with the food. But these are not universally accepted guidelines or etiquette, so you could just leave the leaf as it is, after you’re done eating.

That’s all folks! Out of time. But there it is – a handy guide to banana leaf etiquette. Bon appetite!

13 comments:

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f1speak said...

Well, here are some additions to your research. There are certain areas of Tamilnadu where the leaf is placed with the tapered side to your right, unlike the convention that exists in coastal South India.

And, did you know, there is a place reserved for each dish on a banana leaf? Salt and chips towards bottom left, pickles on top left, papad and banana on left, "pallya" (in Kerala it's known as "thoaran") next to pickle and other side dishes progressively towards right. After rice is served, the first dish that is conventionally served is daal (with ghee, for the diet-blind), followed by Sambaar, Kaalan (dish made on curd base) and rasam. You break this order while serving, and chances are the aged guests (especially from the more conservative South Kerala) might break your bones.

After the lunch, along the Southern coastal areas of India, especially Kerala and Mangalore regions, it is mandatory that you fold the leaf away from you after the lunch. Whereas in Bangalore and rest of Karnataka, it is absolutely important that you fold it towards you.

-F1speak

Anonymous said...

well said abt banana leaf !!!
nowadays people prefer to eat food in banana leaf rather eating in plates !!!!

jani

Jugular Bean said...

You're lucky you don't suffer from ananany.
Ananany is the inability to stop spelling banana!

shenoy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
shenoy said...

ananany. that's what the inability to stop spelling banana is called! or is the ability and the love to spell banana b.a.n.a.n.a.. whatever i am suffering from it. i was going bananas figuring it out. which reminds me of a certain friend of yours who has an independently functional banana. and of rajiv gandhi who always went "this banana hai" "that banana hai". and also of anil kapoor who sang "apna banana hai" in rishtey. heheh! that's funny. Apna Banana hai. This is our Banana. heheh

Anonymous said...

This was a good one - though I dint know there were so many regulations to it..may go bananas trying to figure it out!
A.B

Prashanth Vaidyan said...

By the way - they served Chinese (food) on a banana leaf - sure this brought out more of the flavour!

Shenoy said...

hahahaha. hopefully you hadn't noodles!

Shantharam Shenoy said...

Shenoy maam, it is not mandatory to fold the banana leaf towards or away from you, it depends on customs i guess, for eg, we amchis do not fold leaves for weddings or other celebratory functions (though what in a marriage is celebratory i haven't known yet!!) but in Mallu marriages you always fold leaves. And eating on a banana leaf that too typical amchi food. AWESOME!! Daalitoy, Adgai, Chane gashi etc etc.. mouth watering!! :P

Shenoy said...

Correct Shenoy maam! That’s why I said, that folding, eitherways, or whether to fold at all, are not universal or their rules thereof universally uniform or accepted. Best to leave it as it is.

and vai, devasthana jevana is da beshht! daaT dalithoy, goddi, bibbey upkari, slurrrp

Anonymous said...

gut blog......

venksmyths said...

Rice must be served first in the empty leaf as per vsidhnavites. This is must. Tradition varies as per their samprad
aya