Meal on a Leaf – Non-Southerner Style

Update for week ended 10 December 2010

About fifteen months back, I mentioned of sumptuous meals on a banana leaf (Maaveli), and followed it with a piece on Meals on a plate. This week, I combine both and present to you a typical TamBrahm meal on a banana leaf. So when you go to a wedding, or an initiation ceremony (thread ceremony or Poonal), or a birthday celebration (Sashtiabdapoorthy – 60th birthday or Shathabhishekam – 80th birthday or Kanakaabhishekam – fourth generation birth), you will in all probability be treated to a lunch on a banana leaf, the Saddhi. The food service is almost a ritual in its own right. Traditionally, this is served to guests who are seated in a row, but modern day habits of eating at a table, and at times poor exercise habits of eaters resulting in stiff joints forces the host to arrange for tables. But the sit-down lunch is not to be missed. The banana leaf is laid out horizontally with the tapering end to the right, always! The first touch to it is from water sprinkles – guests must use it to moisten the leaf and clean it. And then the food service begins. The first position is led by the auspicious sweet pudding, payasam, not much, just a drop off a teaspoon, sort of a ritual to indicate sweet beginnings. Then start the light service of vegetables, first a sour curd appetizer with cucumber or tomato, pachadi, then a light cooked pumpkin, olan, to get off to a light start. And then come the others – the cooked curd with root vegetable, kaalan, and as the complexity increases, the vegetable pulse combo, kootu joins in followed by the lightly finely chopped and sautéed vegetable of the day , the curry or poduthval or poriyal. All of these are laid out – spoonfuls or small ladlefuls on the top end of the leaf. These are followed by the hint of steam-cooked split pigeon pea, parippu, placed in the off-centre position, to be flanked by the crispy fried savouries and sweets of the day, sometimes the black gram salty doughnut – medhuvadai or the Bengal gram flatter fritter – parippuvadai, and the sweets are either the drippingly sweet flowery swirls of orange creamy split blackgram, jaangari, or the washing-soap shaped and golden hued famed sweet from Mysore, mysorepa. (some cheapjacks conveniently replace the savoury/sweets with the popular but so out of place banana crisps, varitha upperi; and its sweet cousin, the chakravarti and at times, globules of fried and sweetened gram batter, boondi. No meal is considered fit to eat unless the fiery pickles are served – so the omnipresent tamarind gingelly chilli concoction, pulikaachal, is served with the lemon or mango chilli pickle. And then the grand entry of the moundful of white steaming rice is eagerly awaited. It is followed by the poured-from-a-metre-high-position, clarified butter, nai. The spicy tamarind, vegetable in coconut gravy mellowed by the split pigeon-pea, sambar, is the highlight. And this is where novices, at times, lose their way – at times they find it difficult to handle the scalding rice gravy mix and don’t know what to do, and when they finally get the mix right, they find a different type of scalding on their lips – as the dizzying combination of chilli, spices, tamarind and not commonly found vegetable outside of Southern India, can be quite difficult to handle. The deft Southerner would have almost polished off the entire leaf, all the veggies on the outer edge as well as the rice and gravy and waiting for the next course, while the newbies would look shocked and not know what to do. Some helpful aunties, mamis or uncles, mamas, seeing their predicament, would advise them that more rice and the universal tangy, spicy broth soup would arrive, and should not be missed, and would at times ask them to heap the sambar and rice aside to make place for the palate appetizer, the spiced tamarind broth, rasam. Now if the first course had already filled a stomach, imagine having to deal with that and the jugglery of rice being served with piping hot rasam – ensuring at all times that the broth does not spill off the flat leaf onto the lap. More scalding of fingers and lips and tongue follow, if one has to avoid a scalding of one’s thighs.. And even before a novice gets through three mouthfuls, the regulars are done and waiting for the piece de resistance – the sweet pudding – payasam. Some wedding planners now provide these in cups or bowls for convenience – both for eating as well as timing. This is the sweet part of the day, followed by the palate soother, the curd rice. By this time the novice is looking for the crane that would help him or her get up from her chair and get him or her to wherever they want to go next! After the handwash – everyone heads to the betel leaf and nut “chair” – it is a chair on which is the hoisted a plate or tray laden with betel leaves, some crushed betel nuts, or betel nut wafers – seeval, and some scented calcium carbonate for that added zing on the leaf. For those used to fast food, there are pre-prepared ones, but with half the fun…

The D Boyz seemed to be enjoying a TamBrahm feast on D Street this week – all week long. They behaved appropriately to every dish that was served. So a little excitement on Monday (14 points up on SENSEX) was followed by surprise in small doses as the veggies were laid out (Tuesday – SENSEX down 47 points). And when the steamed rice and sambar was served, they scalded their fingers, screamed and frightened the poor SENSEX down 238 points on Wednesday; and then the rasam spilled onto them and scalded them more that they screamed again to push the SENSEX down further 454 points on Thursday. The soother of the week was the curd rice and the sweet pudding – which helped the SENSEX regain some of its lost composure on Friday by 267 points. Overall a difficult week for them novice D Boyz who could not get up after that meal – and need help to get their SENSEX up on its feet (already 458 points from past week – currently waiting at 19508). Will someone at least get them the green betel leaf, please. It is good for digestion!

And the parting after the meals is also a ritual, as you bid goodbye to the hosts, their uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, grand uncles, grand aunts, sisters in law, brothers in law, “co sisters” and “co brothers”… and so many more that you are confused if not rattled. But a Southerner will never let you go home empty handed. There is always a “return gift” or for those north America inclined folks, “favors” – Taamboolam. It is usually, some betel leaves, a sachet of betel nuts and the sweet of the day – either the jaangarai or mysorepa or the all time favourite, sweetball of gramflour globules, laadoo. Sometimes, the hand-twisted savoury, fried blackgram flour spiral pasta, murukku, is also added to the gift bag. Don’t forget to note the print on the bags – it can be kept as a keepsake so that you remember who wed whom, or who was initiated as a twice born, or who celebrated a birthday. Sweet memories.

Have a nice weekend and see if you can handle such a meal. Share your experiences…


4 thoughts on “Meal on a Leaf – Non-Southerner Style

      1. The banana leaf is laid out horizontally with the tapering end to the right, always!

        I thought it was to the left.

      2. Both are right – tapering to the right if the server is laying it for the “eater” – while for teh “eater” it tapers to the left.

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