Saturday, December 5, 2009

A taste of tradition

No South Indian experience is complete without a meal on a plantain leaf. Despite having spent the first 16 yrs of my life in Southern part of India, I still feel alien to the whole thing. I am still very much a plate and cutlery person. But the experience is worth it. I’ve done it quite a few times as a good daughter-in-law, though it’s still not a very familiar thing to me. I guess the idea of using these leaves as plates came about because they were abundantly available around. Plantains are used in a lot of African and Central american countries, but only the South Indians have been ingenious enough to invent this use.

The service starts with the leaf itself that is given a sprinkling of water to clean it. The first thing that comes is a little sweet dish in one corner - begin your meal by sweetening your mouth. There is a particular place where each vegetable will be served. It’s the main course that’s interesting. Rice is put at the center of the leaf and then rivers of sambhar, curd or rasam flows all over the leaf. It’s only a true-blue south Indian grown up doing it can have the expertise to manage the tide of the curry!! Sometimes it even mixes up with the sweet dish and you keep guessing which one of the two you are having! I try to separate vegetables that touch each other to ensure they taste like they were originally meant to. And make best efforts with my fingers on a straight plantain leaf to keep the sambhar in control. One look around me and I can see others expertly sweeping the leaf with one motion of the hand which reaches the mouth for a quick lick faster then the liquid can drop back. And the lick is one neat stroke all the way down to where the curry has slipped! There doesn’t seem to be anything as amazing as this. I’ve always tasted some salt in my sweet dish since the same spoon - my fingers- has to be used to eat all your food, but no one around seems to mind the adulteration in the taste. The meal becomes satisfying, despite the travails, because we are doing it the way our ancestors did it. It's the traditional way of savouring your food - with your hands.

1 comment:

  1. Some more trivia - the guest of honor is served in 'Talai Valai', the choicest and most tender banana leaf. This is often reserved for the visiting son-in-law :) And in commercial places, mature leaves are bought (they are cheaper), and the stem (on the reverse)is shaved off a bit, so that the leaf remains open. In central India the leaf is placed vertically, as against the horizontal in south. A few decades back, dried and flat-pressed leaves were available and were used for food parcels, before the darn plastic came in...