CHENNAI: Large banana leaves loomed over the dirt pathway that wove through the three-acre plantation. Each plant had little shoots called suckers, erupting at the base. Some had already begun sprouting leaves. My father had chosen to grow bananas in our farm for the sheer excitement of picnicking under the canopy on a lazy day, much like this one. Of course, the perennial herb is also great for business with approximately three to four harvests a year. But the leaves have always fascinated me for their varied uses.
The banana folk
If I were to superlatively divide the people of Tamil Nadu — on food terms, I’d go with mukkanigal (Three fruits) — maa (mango), pala (jackfruit) and vazhai (Banana). While the seasonal mango has its ever-faithful fan base and the humble jackfruit is steadily growing more exotic (think pulled jackfruit burgers, think vegan), the banana folk are likely to make the largest subset. You do not have to look beyond the fruit’s ubiquitous presence in the average Tamilian’s life — from vaazhakai poriyal and vaazhaipoo vadai to banana desserts and banana leaf cutlery,
we have it all. When given the option to eat off a plate or a banana leaf, most south Indians are likely to choose the leaf. “It adds flavour” is the excuse that translates into “the banana leaf is huge and can support more food than a plate”. Many will even claim that eating off of the leaf even makes the food tastier. I remember stopping at a little roadside joint in Vellore while travelling from Chennai to Bengaluru. Our attendant had run out of banana leaves for the meal and asked if he could serve it to us on a plate. We being city folk, didn’t flinch at the idea. However, a customer seated at the table next to ours made sure to clarify if the quantity of food served on plates would be the same as that on the leaf. The man had his priorities in place.
As much as its parent, the banana leaf too, is rather omnipresent in our everyday lives. We humans, being a curious lot, were quick to deduce that the leaf is an antiseptic and can be used to heal wounds. We also found out that it is a great antioxidant, which led to the practice of rubbing minced banana leaves on our skin and hair with the hope that we’d be glowing in the dark and our hair would be strong enough to strangle someone. We didn’t stop there! Banking on the astringent properties of the leaf, we also came up with banana leaf tea. I can’t say I have tried this particular version but just for the sake of this narrative, I’m willing to bet that it would give Earl Grey a run for his money.
Customs & traditions
The banana leaf comes with its own sets of customs and traditions. Nowhere do these customs show up more and elicit strict compliance as when dining on the leaf. It is customary to fold the leaf in half at the end of the meal. That’s the easy part but do you know which direction to pick? When in Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh, you would be expected to fold it to yourself — to signify a full stomach and as a promise to the host to return on such good terms (of course!). Unless you are at a funeral; then you fold it away — because we certainly do not want to return for these reasons (assuming there isn’t an uncle that you secretly wish were dead). Were you in Kerala, things get much simpler — you fold it away from yourself, always, for the simple logic of not wanting the leftovers spilling on you. If this is too much information to carry around for an average mealtime, just remember to look up and copy the person right in front of you; you will be fine.
Also, guests at a feast are never served just three helpings of rice — it is always more or less than three. This, they say, is because three rice balls are placed on a banana leaf during a funeral to signify the presence of three ancestors escorting the spirit of the dead to the Preta Loka (home of the spirits).
Rituals and rites
While there has rarely been a mention of it in Indian religious texts, banana leaves have been used in rituals and rites that most often involve offerings to the gods. The waxy coating on one side of the leaf allows it to be cleaned easily, making it a sanitary device to serve food on. We wouldn’t want to anger the gods with unhygienic cutlery, do we? Banana leaves are also placed at the entrance of the alter in Hindu weddings to recreate Lord Ram’s wedding to Sita, which is believed to have taken place in Mithila — home of the sweetest bananas.
Staying true to our early ancestors’ cause of making complete use of the banana leaf’s many potentials, we have explored enough of its uses in cooking and storage. If you are not already thinking of fish fried in the folds of the leaf or rice steamed in it, you need to eat out more. Dried banana leaves have long since been used as cutlery. With Tamil Nadu embracing the ban on single-use plastic, we’re looking at this heavyweight entering the arena of food packaging. I wouldn’t be surprised if I, one day, order pazhampori from the neighbourhood Mallu joint and it comes packaged in banana leaf. For now, I can only wait for coronavirus to exit this planet so that I can have the rasam rice and payasam to drink off the leaf. So, bon appétit! (Inputs from Kannalmozhi Kabilan; Sriram Venkatakrishnan, historian; S Suresh, INTACH Tamil Nadu State Convener; Walter Clint Fernando, owns a banana farm in Tirunelveli)
Did you know?
When it comes to what’s being served on the leaf, where and how, there are many more rules to be followed. According to one from the Ramayana, Ram invited Hanuman over to eat from the same banana leaf as himself. Hanuman sat in front of Rama and shared half of the leaf. When the monkey god began picking through the rice for the vegetables, Rama separated them and placed the vegetables on Hanuman’s side of the leaf. The practice holds good even today. And you thought the placement was all for practicality!