One of the culinary highlights of the trip to Kuala Lumpur was lunch in the Restoran Grand City in Petaling Jaya. Grand City specializes in the “banana leaf curry” meal. These meals appear frequently in regions of Malaysia and Singapore; I imagine that they are an import from South India.
Our banana leaf meal went like this:
After we ordered the banana leaf meal, a server brought a banana leaf (about 12″ by 24″) and placed it in front of us. Thus, the leaf was both placemat and plate. Then a parade of food servers began. At our Grand City, the parade resulted in the following items scooped onto our banana leaf (or placed nearby):
- rice (white basmati, but in some places you can get biryani rice)
- dal, chicken curry or lamb curry spooned on top of the rice
- three vegetable stews
- fried papadum
- a little salad of cucumbers and onion
- a dab of lemon pickle
- a scoop of crispy deep-fried vegetable chips
- a cup of rasam
- a cup of thin pudding (sweet, milk-based, with pistachio pieces, channa dal, and vermicelli)
All of the above was part of the fixed price meal (and was described in the menu as simply “rice” at a place in Singapore). For those needing more variety or big hunks of meat (or veg-meat), there was also a counter with 10 or so items that could be purchased in addition to the rice meal, including several varieties of vegetarian ‘meat’ in spicy sauce.
Why a banana leaf instead of a plate? I can think of several reasons: economy, convenience, hygiene and tradition. A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food by K.T. Achaya suggests another: ritual purity.
Banana trees grow easily in the tropics and can be converted into plates with just a few slashes of a knife and a quick rinse. Cleanup is simple and inexpensive (both in terms of labor and capital). In the proper place, and with careful planning and growing techniques, it is conceivable that use of banana leaves could be more energy efficient than using metal, ceramic or paper plates. In addition, the leaves could be composted after use to become fertilizer for the future banana leaf crops.
It probably makes no sense to ship banana leaves from the tropics to Devon Street in Chicago or Iselin, New Jersey, or Jackson Heights, Queens but I wonder what the distance is at which the energy efficiency benefit is lost? 10 miles? 100 miles? Does it ever make sense in terms of energy and materials? Can the plants grow fast enough to supply the demand for meals? Could it work in Artesia, California? Has anyone done the calculations?
In terms of ritual purity, Achaya writes
[m]any early societies must have used leaf plates and cups, but their use persisted in India because of the strong concept of cross-pollination [sic, but I think the author meant cross-pollution here – Marc] that marked the Vedic food ethos; this made disposable materials attractive even after those of clay, stone, wood and metal became available… (the leaf plates and cups entry)
[In a Brahmin household, concepts] of ritual pollution pervaded the cooking, serving and eating of food…Cross-pollution was guarded against by the use of disposable plates and cups made of plant leaves. (the etiquette of dining entry)
Eating restaurant food cooked by strangers eliminates much of the purity that is obtained through the use of disposable plates like banana leaves, but their use continues for the reasons of economy, convenience, hygiene and tradition. In addition, the quantity of food provided by the restaurant would have required some seriously large plates.
Since banana leaves don’t grow in most of the U.S., the U.S. equivalent of the banana leaf curry in Indian restaurants here is the thali, which is a meal served on a tray with as many 10 small stainless steel containers of food. (I don’t know how popular the steel serving dishes are in South India.)
The word thali actually refers to the tray, not a style of meal, and is probably equivalent to the American “Blue Plate Special”, which is a frequently varied group of a main and side dishes. Again quoting A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food:
The sthali was a ritual cooking pot used in a domestic Vedic kitchen to boil rice…The name survives in a modified form in the thali of today; however, this is not a pot but a circular metal dining plate with raised edges, often accompanied by deep, small circular metal bowls called katoris in which are placed accompaniments to the meal…At large gatherings, as for a wedding feast, disposable leaf plates would still be preferred.