The plantain leaf is far from out-dated – it is an efficient bio-product and can accommodate any number of delicacies.
Food service in India has many variations. The number of environment-friendly materials that are used, speaks of the intelligence and versatility of our ancestors. Most of us in the south, know about dried-leaf plates (thai-elai) and cups (dhonai). Supari plates and cups, made from the supari tree are also used. The plantain leaf is the most common among these bio-products. In central India and the northern regions, mud-plates and cups are still used. All these lend a specific romance and flavour to foods served in them!
Further, Indians are the only people who can eat liquid foods from flat, rimless, limp, leaf plates, using fingers and no scooping devices like spoons; or digging and cutting devices like forks and knives. Self-contained, self-sufficient and self-confident, are we not?!
Much has been written about the rules of service and etiquette in Continental and western food service. In comparison, there isn't much written regarding the traditional south Indian meal served on a plantain leaf. Further, the tradition of serving on a plantain leaf is happening in any which way, these days, even in hotels.
Actually, the service of dishes follows a very logical pattern and the choices of the menu items are suitable and balanced in every aspect: nutritional, aesthetic appearance and ease of service. (Just a high calorie meal for special occasions)!
As most of the menu items are served in small quantities at the beginning, I even consider it as a visual menu card, meant especially for each diner. This may be my understanding of the traditional meal of Tamil Nadu.
The plantain leaf: This serves as the plate. Originally, it was placed on a clean floor, one for each person. The diner sat on mats, or low wooden seating platforms. Now, we have moved up to dining tables and chairs. The leaf is about 1 1/2 to 2 feet in length. The central rib of the leaf is shaved to flatten it for easy placement. The broad-end of the leaf is placed to the right, as mostly right handed eating is practiced. (Sorry, left- handers)! From the hygiene point of view, you can assume that these are the original, single-use disposable plates! They are environmentally, viable; providing attractive background green to the colourful spread of food and they are even considered to impart a special flavour to the hot food. I've heard it said that they are medicinal too.
The menu: The plan is elaborate and the items depend on the occasion for which it is served. Wedding menus indicate the status, the community and the personal choices of the family members. In Karnataka, they serve the sweet depending on the progression of the wedding and the changing relationship of the families of the bride and groom. The menu has at least 15 items, starting with salt and ending with ‘beeda'!!
Food service: Starts with the sweet taste, i.e., cut pieces of banana mixed with crystal sugar. This is to help start the digestive juices. This is served on the left top corner. Beside this is a small heap of salt for individual tastes (saves the need for a salt shaker and prevents public requests for salt, which may be insulting the chef)! Next to these are served solid preparations of a pulse and vegetable salad, one fried vegetable preparation, one soft cooked vegetable, partial gravy preparations like, kootu,avialand pachadi.
The lower half of the leaf is reserved for mixed rice on the left with crisp chips and appalam on it. The right edge is where a small spoon of plain cooked dhal and a teaspoon of the payasamare served. The central part of the leaf is used for plain rice into which you mix the gravy dishes, sambaar, rasam and finally curd, in that order.
Rasam, payasam and curds are served in paper cups, these days. Sweet preparations, one solid ( may be served in your hand, if you wish to save it and eat later)!, and one kheer, are served in-between the courses. This practice is common to Indian traditions, as curds at the end is supposed to cleanse the mouth and cooling the system. Finishing the meal with a dessert is a western practice that we have picked up during the British Raj, I think.
The finale': Getting up from the meal, some people fold the leaf in. This is a NO, NO. In our tradition, a guest is not permitted to clean up. ‘athithi daivo bhava'! Further, a leaf is folded only for death ceremony meals, not for happy occasions!
The betel nut: A beeda is a folded betel leaf packet with suitable fillings inside. This is supposed to complete the meal and end the craving for food. It is an ‘au revoir' — a good bye!
The author is Dean, Academy of Fitness Management, FitnessOne