When I lived in Malaysia, going out for banana leaf rice on a Friday afternoon was as good as skiving. This is because we had to deal with the inevitable food coma and drowsiness after eating a heaping of rice, served with various curries, meat and vegetables dishes on a banana leaf.
Owner-manager of Roti Bar in Melbourne, Julin Tan shares this view. “Banana leaf rice is a heavy dish. We used to say, a nap after the meal completes the meal,” she says and laughs.
Banana leaf rice is a traditional method of eating rice in South India, Sri Lanka and places with Indian diaspora such as Malaysia and Singapore. This is because the tropical climate is suitable for growing bananas and the staple meal is rice, but Tan is among the few individuals who are trying their hand at replicating it in Australia along with her co-owner, Ray Ulaganathan.
“In Malaysia, banana leaf rice is weekend food. People catch up over this meal; we don’t have to wait for a special occasion,” she says. Accordingly, Roti Bar only serves banana leaf rice on Saturdays.
At Nithik’s Kitchen in Sydney, banana leaf rice is only available on special occasions like Diwali, Christmas and Mother’s Day.
“These days in Chennai, Indian banana leaf rice is served during special occasions like weddings because of the amount of labour it requires," says the restaurant's chef Vikram Arumugam. "Eating from a banana leaf is a unique experience. When the hot rice hits the banana leaf, you get an appetising aroma that cannot be replicated in other ways.”
Banana leaf rice could be overwhelming to the uninitiated since restaurants might have 15–30 dishes to choose from. To help customers, Tan has a go-to set of advice. “Rice, basic dishes and condiments such as dhal, vegetables, dried chilli, pickles and pappadums are unlimited. The service staff will place all these on your banana leaf,” she explains. “Then, I recommend you pick a fried dish like fried fish or chicken 65 and a dry curry dish such as chicken varuval. Beyond that, it depends on the size of your dining group. If there’s a few of you, try a larger dish like mutton curry – something with a lot of gravy, meat and bones.”
The variety of curries on offer is indicative of the chef’s background, experience and customer demand. Chef Leelakrishnan Thinagaran of Curry Virundhu in Perth has a South Indian and Sri Lankan background and he makes Madurai biryani, Madurai mutton chukka, chicken chukka and beef ularthiyathu, a dry-style beef with sliced coconut. “We also have boti masala which is goat’s stomach and sometimes, brain,” he says.
As for the vegetables, they're flavourful, textured and reflective of the local produce in the Indian subcontinent. “We rotate our vegetables but usually we have brinjal (eggplant), snake beans, okra, jackfruit seeds, bitter gourd and winter melon. We also have starchy dishes using plaintains and potatoes,” Arumugam says.
“Banana leaf rice is a heavy dish. We used to say, a nap after the meal completes the meal.”
A balanced meal is one that has all the five taste profiles: spicy (e.g. chicken or mutton curry), salty (e.g. dried chilli), bitter (e.g. fried bitter gourd), sour (e.g. pickles, raita), sweet (e.g. lassi). Remembering this rule helps reduce decision paralysis.
It is a given that eating banana leaf rice requires eating with hands. Firstly, on a practical basis, if we eat with a fork and spoon, we will tear the leaf and cause a mess. Secondly, eating with hands allows us to feel the texture of the food and pick out small bones and cartilage.
Thinagaran is a big believer in eating with hands for these reasons. “When you touch your food and feel the heat, it activates your appetite.”
He does not offer cutlery in his restaurant and encourages people to try eating with their hands, which most do. “I have disposal cutlery, though,” he quickly adds.
There is also a subtle messaging in folding banana leaves after you are done with the meal. Folding it inwards to you means you enjoyed the meal. Folding it away from you originally meant you no longer want to return to a situation, such as a funeral. But it has evolved into a way for people to indicate that they did not like the meal. “People in Australia may not know this, so I don’t take it to heart if I see a leaf folded away from them,” Tan says.
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