Have you read chetan Bhagat”s “two states’? Did you notice that he talks about the meals on banana leaf at his prospective in-law’s house? Does it sound so very South Indian to you? mm. But, unfortunately most of us do not eat our meals on banana leaves any more since we discovered the convenience of stainless steel plates and that was over fifty years ago, I think. In cities most houses do not have the space for their own kitchen garden and if they need a leaf for their meals they’d have to buy it from the market and sometimes it may not even be available in every market.

On the other hand banana leaf meals are indeed an important ritual at our weddings and special occasions when special feasts follow a family function. I call it a ritual as there are rules regarding the placement of dishes on the leaf and the order in which they are served in several courses during the meal. People who are in charge of serving the meal are supposed to observe the leaves and serve the side dishes as and when they disappear from the leaves according to the preference of the guest. Since it is difficult to know the preference of all guests before hand, this system did involve cooking enormous quantities of all items on the menu and sometimes food was wasted both on the leaf and as leftover food. Buffet system has come to be considered as a better option to avoid wastage but a typical Tamil feast does not lend itself elegantly to this. As it involves mixing rice with several gravys a plate is rather small to contain the spread of a typical Ilai sappadu or banana leaf feast.Several of my relatives look down on buffet system where one queues up with a plate to have the meal served – they think it is like a soup kitchen for the homeless!
Well, they are like this only – have I not told you about my Thanjavur roots and the sharpness of our tongue!

The problem with Banana leaf meals at weddings today is that the service is rather impersonal which takes away the essence of such a meal. Meals are contracted out and served mechanically at breakneck speed. Side dishes are served with tea spoons and if you are lucky they may come once again to check if you need any more. Otherwise it is a race against their serving speed. By the time you are halfway through your sambar rice , a guy appears asking if you need rice for rasam followed closely by the guy with rasam. Two minutes later, while you are still delicately negotiating the rasam from flowing on to your lap, a guy wants to know if you want more rice for the next course with buttermilk. It is indeed tough even for seasoned banana leafers. And there is an additional torture in some halls. To prevent the appalam from flying away they switch off the fans. Draped in silks in a mid summer afternoon, trying to eat hot food keeping pace with the servers and no fan? To an outsider it might indeed seem like a case that merits reference to the National Human Rights Commission.

At a Palakkad Tamilian wedding that I attended recently there was a Punjabi couple seated opposite me at lunch. It was a typical Palakkad feast with exotic stuff like Avial, Olan and erisseri and of course Paal payasam. Most of the North Indians I know who tell me that they enjoy South Indian food once in a while actually mean Idly and Dosa – nothing more. Avial and Paal Payasam? Oops they’’d need an orientation course even to pronounce their names.. So naturally this couple looked totally lost . They tasted tiny bits of everything and gave up early in the battle. Since they had nothing to do after the first two minutes of the meal they were watching those around with great curiosity – up to our wrists in the leaf, quickly shoving in mouthfuls in order to keep up with the pace of the service, all this while admirably controlling the rasam's flow within the boundaries of the leaf; sweating profusely while consuming the hot food in such huge doses but not letting go of a second helping of olan and erisseri. As I surveyed the leaf of the couple and saw that it was practically untouched, I wondered if they’d go home and make a few paranthas for lunch.

And the bride at this wedding was from Orissa. I hope there was some way her family had found to order in some Pizza unobserved by the groom’s side. Or perhaps they just sat and fumed at the banana leaf lunch and had their revenge at the Oriya reception?
Remember Aesop's fable about the stork and the fox?

P.s: Wrote this originally in Tamil - yes I have a Tamil Blog here. Please visit and tell me what you think.And please be kind...
35 Responses
  1. Mana Says:

    Perfect post. Totally second your thoughts. But these days, wedding lunch is on plantain leaf n reception a buffet. Even in the Mutts/temples, lunch is always served on leaf resulting in huge food wastage.

    I have also noticed that most people don't know how to eat while food is served on leaf. :)

  2. dipali Says:

    This was lovely! You are making me hungry for a delicious Onam sadya:)
    I love Malayalee vegetarian food, as well as Tamilian dishes. Living in different states certainly enriches one's palate, as well as life in general.

  3. Vidya Says:

    When I visit and stay in the village with my grandmother, eating on a banana leaf was a must. I lost many runny battles to rasam. My family was always amused of the inventive forts and walls I'd build with my vegetables as a method to save my (runny) food!

  4. Just when I was despairing that you don't post often - you reveal the existence of the Tamizh blog !

    Thank you !!

    Also, IMHO, Chetan Bhagat's book only dwelt on the stereotypical Tambram stuff

  5. Anonymous Says:

    I lovvvve elai sapadu. That was my biggest craving when I was pregnant and I had no means of fulfilling it until my daughter's first birthday!!

  6. Unknown Says:

    What I see between the lines is a wistful longing for the wedding feasts of yore when family served at the tables . I have had a Malayalee meal only once. Most of us were clueless about the food but tucked in nevertheless !

  7. Gauri Says:

    Usha :) You've sent me rolling down memory lane with this one.

    "Food" enough for a post ? What say ?

  8. R's Mom Says:

    hahahaah! this is so true...I am a Tam bram but just cant eat on the banana leaf..and worse still in a lot of weddings I have seen that the food is already pre served for the first sitting..which some oldies and even youngies consider an offence....and negotiating rasam...impossible trust me on that one!!!

  9. artnavy Says:

    lovely post

    i completely agree about the tea spoon size servings and how they dump stuff u dont want as well even if you say no in is so mechanical

    Having said that i still love yella saapadu..

    a pure south indian at a punjabi wedding will also find it difficult i guess... dont know...

  10. WhatsInAName Says:

    I personally love the yelai saapaadu. Infact, even now in Mumbai, during special occasions and functions we eat on banana leaf only, and that's like once a month atleast. So, we don't wait for a marriage for that. Yes, its a knack and not for all :) and I want my girls to be aware of these customs.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    Lovely post. In fact I love all your descriptions in all your posts... this one made me long for a delicious onam sadya...

    An Oriya reception revenge sounds like quite a possibility :)

  12. bala rao Says:

    Very picturesque article! personally I find it quite a violation of baisc human rights too - the without fan, hot rice, rasam combination!

    Nice to know you write quite elegantly in Tamil also; I dont understand a word though! :)

  13. SR Says:

    hey.. Lovely post..

    Being a South India relish meal on banana leaf, but like you said its not easy being otherwise.

  14. vazhayilai sappadu

    I have a different opinion.

    Being a vegeterian, i like marwari marriages as the hospitality, decor and endless list of menu in buffet makes me clean bold. but... its quiet understandable, they invite very few guests and they could exercise utmost care 2 anyone.

    unlike marwaris, punjabis and gujjus, our customs , the way we approach cermonies are different... shortly there is less enthusiasm and enjoyment in our celebrations.. rather its considered as an inevitable difficult task one want to finish off without any issues.

    obviously, when we are not ready to dance, enjoy ourselves, vazhayila sappadu is the best way considering nearly 1000 guests ( most of them known unknown to us).

    at the same moment i like banana leaves cut in circles or oval forms to drape over the stainless steel plate for lunch and dinner even in restauarants.... this is done in all chennai restaurants.. ofcourse uncommon with darshinis and sagars in bangalore.

    I am from kanchipuram, every tuesday and friday we have vazhayila sappadu after pooja. we dont have garden, we procure it, but it gives immense satisfaction to me.

    i accept chetan bhagats comments about us- basically we all are aloof people, proud of doing many things without definite reasons, yet be comforatble and content with the way we are. i would like to continue the same.

  15. SmitaJay Says:

    Awesome the food tastes on a banana leaf.. and we keralites still go for banana leaf spread for all special rituals - pirannal, perru vekkal, chorroonnu, 28, 56, 90...all possible !! Hey I know another Tam-Bram wedded to an Oriya gal settled in Singa.. Wow..

  16. Anonymous Says:

    Perfect post. We still use elai at home(well i'm from south indian village) whenever possible. The trick with rasam and thayir/mor is to eat sitting on the floor. Table is no good for elai. you have to gobble up(in my grandma's words "rasam odarathukku munnadi, tholupido") the rasam with your hands before it reaches the floor. keep up the good work :)

  17. maami Says:

    Two things to say.
    I usually pick a piece of potato and slide it under the leaf's edge facing me. This way the rasam never flows down to my lap. It has worked for me.
    Second, I haven't had an answer why we serve meals in a breathless manner as you've aptly decsribed. A good meal is an experience to savour.Why do we slap, flick, pour, swish and serve making it a "quick" experience , so that others can sit in the next pandhi?fast fast, ok-va?
    That is my only bug bear with elai saapadu. It's been a hundred years since I ate elai saapadu.
    Serve me please? Feeding hungry maamis heaps punniyam.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    Wow, Usha! It's nice to actually know a fellow Tanjorean besides me grandma!

  19. Usha,

    This post brought back childhood memories of wedding and thread ceremony feasts/lunches in a huge mandap eaten on banana leaves. And although we have a different menu in Maharashtra, the similarity in the desperate method of serving exists. This business of guys coming one after the other with stuff, with tilted containers, possibly tilted just a bit more above your leaf to serve. We have this dish called panchamrut, and i often marvelled at the way they went by saying "panchamrut, panchamrut, panchamrut" almost running by, and you kind of suddenly thrust your leaf in between to get a serving, or waited for a possible next round; followed by someone muttering and passing by saying "Toop,toop,toop" (ghee).... I also remember a fellow kind of giving me a look, when i disturbed his serving and running" rhythm, by suddenly requesting more cucumber koshimbir(raita).

    Buffets are not a patch on this, though ....

  20. Brought back so many memories ....
    Somehow meals on banana leaves has a totally different and authentic taste ... yum yum yum ....
    Agreed, these days the caterers rush through it ....

    We always enjoyed banana leaves meals when we went to my grandma's house for summer vacations .... later that stopped because the whole cleaning process was kind of painful :(

    You know, its not just the order of the dishes ... even the leaf itself has to be placed pointing in the right direction for the right occasion ....

  21. hillgrandmom Says:

    But Usha, there is nothing quite like an elai sappadu!! :-D

  22. Usha Says:

    Manasa: Now I would understand the hurry in serving lunch at the Mutts/ temples. But at weddings it is supposed to be a leisurely feast and it is not good to force people to gobble up and get out.

    Dipali:I totally agree. I love the kerala veg food too especially their sadyas.

    Vidya: The thing is, I love to pour a lot of rasam on the rice when I eat rasam sadam. This is impossible when you eat on a leaf. So I dont enjoy rasam sadam on a leaf at all.

    PV: Thanks for the encouragement at ennapadhivugal.
    Yes, I felt the same about C>B's book - stereotyped on both sides I thought although it is an assumption about the punjabi side of the story.

    Nrimaami:aaha, but my son tells me that he goes toa temple at Flushing where they serve elai saappadu on special days!

    Eve's: that's right. These days family don't even come around during lunch which was a must in days of yore.

    Gauri: Food more than enough for a post. i am burping!

    R's mom: Yes, the caterers seem to be in a great hurry to just finish the pandhi and use such time-saving methods.

    Artnavy: Never been to a punjabi wedding but there was a comedy show where the guy joked about mile long queues and people rushing from one queue to another in search of different dishes and then the usual complaints about how bad the food is. It is the same everywhere.

    WIAN: A few years ago we tried having elai sappadu at home. It was great except that my back broke trying to serve so many dishes.

    IHM: Thanks. I would have loved to attend the Oriya reception and get the other side of the story.

    Bala rao: I write in Tamil - not sure how elegant it is. I learnt Tamil only up to school and never practised writing it.

    SR: Thank you.

    Karuna: Thanks for such a detailed comment. I am tempted to join you sometime on a tuesday or friday. I agree totally about our approach to such ceremonies. There is less fun and more ritual and we just want to finish them as quickly as possible.

    Smithajay: we had a neighbor from kerala and the first thing they did when they shifted to the house was to plant plantain trees.and coconut trees Ina few years they had so many plantain trees and even a jack fruit tree that we used to refer to their house as 'Keralam"
    So I guess it is easy for them to have a banana leaf meal anytime.

    Anon:How many of our cityfolk can actually sit on the floor for one whole meal and bend down and eat the food?

    Maami: Potato trick will be tried next time and results published here. :)
    next time you are in namma bengaluru for sure!
    My friend tells me Arusuvai arasu restaurants in Chennai serve elai sappadu any day of the week for a mere 120. Try if you are in chennai.

    Jay: :)

    Ugich:hahahha, it does become a game at times - watching them from a few meters away and catching them before they cross us while simultaneously trying to finish what is on our leaf.
    Sure buffets are rather uneventful compared to that.

    C.A.: yes I was inducted into the process of serving a meal on a leaf a few days before the wedding.

    Sue: Totally, if it is served by family and we are given the time to relish and eat.

  23. Shankari Says:

    I love elai chapaadu :) For onam, avani avittam and varalakshmi nonbu I make do with the frozen elai that we get in the Indian stores here in the US, though it is nothing in comparison to eating out the fresh leaf! Have not had elai chapaadu in almost 3 years, I hope to this year!!!

  24. Sue Says:

    I love the sound of this wedding feast, actually. I confess to being a a total convert to the joys of Tam food, eaten off banana leaves. :)

  25. Anonymous Says:

    Annoyed with the uncontrollable rasam, my daughter wanted to carry her own plate to weddings. She was 8 then.

  26. Vani Says:

    super post maami ..vani

  27. Sree Says:

    Ushaji.. I have been a silent follower of yours...

    I would like you to know your viewpoint on

  28. Sorcerer Says:

    Eating from banana leaf..its awesome..I love it..
    Mallu I am!

  29. sandhya Says:

    Hello Usha. Delurking after a long time. You have been tagged.

  30. voices Says:

    Did you also know that in some communities in the South the food is served on the leaf to only outsiders - a subtle way of telling your guest he is not of the family.

  31. Uma Says:

    No one has described elai sappadu's evolution better... and the trauma faced by the 'outsiders' ...

    Enjoyed this as much as the elai saappadu :D

  32. Reema Says:

    Umm why pizza for the oriya girl? Simple rice, dal, sabzi would have sufficed.
    Banana leaves are used in Bong occasions too except in marriages. Caterers serve food in normal plates and there should be no hurry at all in doing that.

  33. Hey Usha,

    Cute post! Oh! how i miss going to those weddings since I moved to US!!

    But you know, I really have to disagree on that hurried serving thingie. I really thought caterers are getting extremely good at it these days, the last few weddings that i had been, everything was up for seconds and tasted absolutely deliiiicious! And then they serve sooo many sides these days, you hardly have place in tummy for second helpings! I love the concept of serving rasam in cups, that way you can control the rasam better!

    At my place we always used to have vazha ilai sapadu during pandigai! I loved it and miss it!

    And honestly, is it too difficult to just observe what others do and follow on in weddings for ppl from other culture? Its not like there are any rules to eating food served on banana leaves, its much less complicated than the 7 course meal of the western with fork and spoon predefined for each course!

    Just my thoughts..

  34. Mahadevan Says:

    After a long time I chose to respond to one of your blogs because I find vintage Usha here.

    Elai saapadu is an exhilarating experience. To preserve the elai untorn till the end itself is a fine art. If you serve on a "kattai elai" instead of a 'nuni elai' to s senior man, your credential to serve would be questioned.

    Every item has a place in the elai and is to be served in the prescribed order. You disturb the order or serve at the wrong place, you would be frowned to death, if not frozen to death by fear.

    Banana leaves add succour to the savouries. It is hygienic too.

    Only those who have a cultural root and a keen sense of observation and felicity of expression, can come out with a blogpost like this. Reminds me of reading an RKN piece.