A way to understand: Banana leaves

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 7:07pm

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

A few weeks ago, I was introduced to “Ugly Delicious,” a Netflix TV series hosted by American restaurateur, David Chang. In the series, Chang follows the history, culture and cooking which goes into dishes across the world, ranging from shrimp and crawfish, to fried rice to steak. As a huge fan of travel-food shows, like “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” I envy people like Chang’s ability to explore cultures, new regions and new types of people through the cuisine they eat, and to share this with wider, sometimes more culturally isolated audiences. 

Food is a core pillar of my family and my identity. Ever since I was young, I was taught to cherish the art of eating, cooking and the beauty in sharing the incredible feelings emitted by said food with those around you. Food has always been more than nourishment for me — it’s a hobby, a way I build relationships and a passport into new perspectives and cultures. So as I watched Chang’s series, I began to appreciate the intricacies and calculations behind seemingly simple foods, like pizza or fried rice, and the fondness, history and attachment tied to larger cultural cuisines I’ve never explored before.

In Season 2, Episode 2, “Don’t Call it Curry,” Chang explores the roots of Indian cuisine, primarily due to the American public’s general unfamiliarity with it. He admits he’s never made Indian food at home and is quite complexed by it. Why? Chang has no explanation. But he goes on to admit there is some barrier Indian food has yet to break within the United States. It hasn’t fully become mainstream; you don’t see many quick, modern Indian chains, hear common discussions of Indian recipes in food blogs and papers, nor is there an understanding by the average American of what Indian food is. The most frustrating aspect of Indian cuisine in America is the lack of representation of all Indian cuisine across the entire nation.

Padma Lakshmi (host of “Top Chef,” and a guest of the episode) struck a chord with me, by noting the way Indian food is presented in America is as if you were to group Europe into one big country, and refer to Italian, French, Spanish cuisine all as “European.” India is diverse, scattered and regionalized. Each state has its own language, variations in culture and slight differences in religion and cuisines. The Indian food most typically represented in America — butter chicken, chicken tandoori — belongs to a single Indian state, Punjab. And extending from here, other popular foods such as naan, samosas, paneer, korma, belong to North Indian cuisine. India is a country with over a billion people, so flavors are infinite. 

My family is from Kerala, one of the most southern Indian states. Here, cuisine greatly varies from the Northern style and is much less represented in American dining. There is more of a stew-like, drier presentation featuring curries and a variety of vegetables. Other than these curries (and many others), there are tasty fried foods like idli, vadas, pappadams and dosa. Dosas, being the most popular in my opinion, are a staple of Southern Indian households. They are often likened to be the “Indian crepe” and have gained slight popularity in larger cities and smaller pop-up shops. 

But even within South India, and Kerala, there are variations. While I adore and crave many dishes from Kerala, which resemble greater South Indian cooking, when thinking about the art of eating from my homeland, I think of banana leaves. Used often for weddings, larger religious events and special occasions, banana leaves are representative of a savvy, traditional and nostalgic medium to eat food — it’s the world’s natural plate. The large, thick, light green leaf is inexhaustible and crisp, and was a perfect way in the past and present to serve food. Keeping the tip of the leaf on the right side, and the larger side on the right, small subtleties mark the “correct” way to eat from a banana leaf. But first, food is served. 

When thinking about banana leaves, I think about sadhyas, which essentially means “feast” in Malayalam. These banquet type lunches are common for weddings, important birthdays, and religious celebrations — they are usually quite a production. Picture a large, open-space room with roughly one to two hundred guests sitting at long wooden tables side by side with banana leaves placed in front of them. Caterers come out in this synchronized, almost rehearsed movement — they know what to do, they’ve done this for sadhyas over and over. In tubs, they go down the lines of tables and serve very small portions of various foods onto the banana leaves one by one. Sometimes they ask if you want the serving or not, but before you can even answer, the serving is placed in a little circle on your leaf, and the offererer has passed onto the next guest.

First comes pickle. There are two types of pickle that may come — one, a raw mango pickle with chili powder and mustard seeds, and two, a combination of jaggery and green chili, which adds a tart spice to the palate. Next come banana chips, one of my personal go to snacks and one of the more familiar foods of South India. This mild banana chip can help clean the palate and provides some crunch to the meal. As expected, they have a unique banana taste, but this is accompanied by sugar, cumin and cardamom.

After is thoran, a mix of finely chopped vegetables like cabbage and beans, fried with coconut, mustard seeds and turmeric. As a coastal state, Kerala boasts coconut as a staple of many meals. Kaalan is then served, which is a tuber (usually yam) cooked with spices like fenugreek, turmeric and red chili. Next is olan, a milky white stew made from beans simmered in coconut milk, along with chili and curry leaf flavors.

Following olan is avial, a dish I really enjoy. This mix of vegetables is cooked into ground coconut and yogurt. Finally come the last three side dishes: erissery, pappadam and kichadi. Erissery is a thick gravy made of pumpkins fried in coconut gravy. Pappadam — one of my all time favorites, and a food that has grown popular across the country of India — is a crunchy pancake made from rice flour lentils deep fried in coconut oil. Pappadam can be crunchy or soft, is bubbly from the fryer and makes a great accompaniment to rice. Last, the kichadi is a curd mix with sliced, sauteed cucumber and deep-fried okra. 

Now, the main dish: choru (rice). This white rice takes on a much thicker and softer consistency than others allowing it to mush well with the side dishes. It’s usually served with ghee and dal and you will receive a heaping mound of it on your banana leaf to eat with all else that has been presented. As you eat, the caterers will come by refilling your side plates — often even before you realize the food is finished. 

Following the main courses comes dessert: paysam. Paysam is a mix of boiled condensed milk with sugar, rice, cardamom, saffron and ghee. Most consume it like a soup or as a drink. It’s one of the sweetest foods I’ve ever tasted and is a simple, honest dessert that sparks tradition and celebration with each taste. 

The sadhya is like a dance. The caterers move in this orchestrated harmony, communicating effectively and swiftly across the room with one another to fuel the stomach and hearts of guests. In the midst, guests eat, and eat and eat. They talk as well, some with full mouths and some being polite, but a sea of dialogue crowds the room and you can barely hear the workers ask if you want more olan or avial. 

Sadhya has been resemblant of my Kerala eating experience, having folded over my own banana leaf plate and inhaled my own mounds of choru, pappadam and other dishes plenty. It’s a part of my homelands’ cuisine and culture that is rooted, nostalgic and natural. It’s an experience I wish could be as common as Trader Joes’ frozen chicken tikka masala or Cardamom’s biryani, but all I can do now is encourage you to find South Indian cuisine locally and experience your own mini-sadhya, or banana leaf encounter. In fact, I encourage you to find the banana leaf moments of all cultures around you. Yes, many of us have tried the more popular food items of other cultures: bibimbap, tom yum orarroz con pollo. But have we really tried to dive deep into the cultures and traditions of others’ cuisines? Have we found those niche, sentimental moments that can provide not only an amazing meal, but a sense of understanding, connection and appreciation for diversity? I invite you to share your own culture with others, but seek the power and knowledge that can come behind a good story and a great meal that once seemed strange or foreign to you. As we all know, sometimes, the only way to get to someone’s heart is through their stomach. 

Sunitha Palat can be contacted at spalat@umich.edu.