The Banana Leaf
This blog is dedicated to my dad who was known as a legend for creating amazing Tamil Brahmin wedding (South Indian from Chennai) experiences in New Delhi.
If you know something about Indian weddings then you already know about the number of attendees, variety of food, beautiful silk attires, fragrant flowers, rangoli, rituals and more. What you might not know is that for a South Indian wedding you need even more than the above e.g., a banana tree to tie at the entrance of the wedding hall, jasmine flowers for the bride and all the attending ladies, a rose garland draped in fine silver and gold wire for all the ceremonies, turmeric, sandal wood paste and so on.
Sourcing banana leaves in the late 1960's in Delhi was challenging, as banana trees were not grown for commercial purposes in the north. My Dad had to arrange for them to come all the way from Chennai by train, which usually took 3 days. I remember the leaves would come wrapped in a thick layer of moist fabric to ensure their freshness even after a number of days. Now, you may ask why did he bother to source banana leaves? It is important to understand that the banana tree signifies an endless generation. The leaves send a message to the married couple to lead a life like the plantain tree, which gives a lot while expecting nothing in return.
In south India there is a tradition of serving food to guests on banana leaves, especially on special occasions and during festivals. The banana leaf is also considered to be sacred and is often used in offering prasad to deities. These thick leaves are big enough to serve multi-course meals, ranging from runny dal like dishes called sambhar to chutneys. Banana leaves are loaded with nutrients and when food is served on them the food gets enriched with several nutrients that we would otherwise miss.
Believe it or not, food served on banana leaves is tastier. When hot food is placed on a banana leaf the wax coating dissolves, giving an earthy taste to the food. Banana leaves contain large amounts of polyphenols that are natural antioxidants. These are found in many plant-based foods and green tea. Food served on banana leaves absorbs the polyphenols, these antioxidants are said to prevent many lifestyle diseases. Banana leaves are also said to have anti-bacterial properties that can possibly kill germs in food.
I remember that at the end of each meal the used leaves would be savoured by the stray cows which frequented the bins regularly. This ensured that the yesteryear weddings were waste free. Banana leaves not only decompose in a very short time, as opposed to most types of plastic, but they also save time and effort that would have otherwise gone into washing dishes. Chemical based dish washing soaps and liquids further enter the ground water and could harm the water table in the long run. The tradition of eating food on banana leaves is not only a treat to the eyes but to the palate as well. So the next time someone offers you a meal on a banana leaf, roll up your sleeves and dig right in!