Using the banana leaf, mandarai leaf ( Bauhinia variegata ) and panai olai (palm leaves) to pack food was once traditional in South India. The pandemic, which prompted a surge in the use of plastics, reiterated the need for sustainable packaging alternatives. Palm leaves, as restaurants and cloud kitchens launched in the past year have found, are a practical option.
Chennai-based cloud kitchen, Karigar Biryani offers perunchoru packaged in palm leaf boxes. This rice dish cooked with meat finds mention in Sangam literature. “Over a period of time, biryani that used to be served on special occasions, has come to be a common, easily available dish. We wanted to offer something different; therefore in order to make our dish distinctive from other types of biryani available in the market, we pack it in palm leaf boxes,” says Girish Subash, co-founder, Karigar Biryani.
“We initially decided to go in for bamboo boxes, but our research led us to understand that maintenance was a major issue,” he continues, “While travelling in Sattur and Kovilpatti region, I came across many families that were weaving panai olai petti , which was predominantly used for packing palm jaggery.”
Palm leaves are available in abundance in the region in and around Tiruchendur, but it is during the summer months that craftspersons collect, clean and sun dry the leaves for making various products through the year, shares Jariya Aziz, who runs a crafts collective Abati, at Kayalpattinam. “In this region, palm leaves are commonly used to store snacks and food items such as idiyappam . Wedding favours are also given to guests in mittai petti , made of palm leaves. Traditionally, these pettis have been a practical and cost effective way to store palm jaggery. Box making is a cottage industry in this region, and it is mostly women who engage in this work,” she says.
“There are few artisans who are now actively weaving palm leaf boxes, but for the past few months the demand has surged,” says 32-year-old D Anto Brighten, an Engineering graduate, who took up his family vocation of making palm leaf products at his hometown, Adikalapuram, near Tiruchendur.
Some of the regions in the State where artisans still make products with palm leaf are Thoothukudi, Vilathikulam, Vembar and Nagalapuram, and Pazhaverkadu near Chennai. The craftspersons make six to eight baskets per day, earning a daily wage of ₹200.
“We have supplied over 3,000 boxes so far for packaging biryani. Though it is a labour intensive craft, completely hand made, it is reusable, durable, and has high flexibility. I am glad that it is gaining popularity as a packaging option,” says Anto.
Chef Koushik S of Eatitude Consultants, points out that mandarai leaves, banana leaves and palm leaves have been part of our culture; these have only regained popularity during the pandemic.
“Apart from being sustainable and biodegradable, palm leaves also impart an unique earthy flavour when I add it and cook it along with biryani,” he says.
Not just as boxes, palm leaves can be used to make spoons, cups and even wedding garlands. Anto’s most popular innovation last year was a Christmas star made of palm leaf. “These don’t require any sort of chemical treatment. Just sun drying would suffice,” says Koushik.
“We have to ensure that they do not come in contact with water,” says Girish. The leaves are sun-dried to ensure there is no moisture, cut into strips, with the help of a machine, and then woven. Girish says that they have adopted a sterilisation method in their restaurant, where they pre-heat their pizza oven to 300 degrees, flash heat the boxes in batches for a few seconds and then pack the food in them, after layering it with banana leaf.
A palm box’s life does not end there, Girish has learnt: “The boxes we send out our biryani in are being repurposed by our customers as planters, dust bins and for storage.”