Banana Leaf Rice 101

01 December 2015

Before you devour the next delicious mouthful of curry and rice, read on to discover the origins behind this well-loved South Indian traditional dish.


There are very few things in life more satisfying than a plate of banana leaf rice (the term ‘plate’ is used loosely here). Banana leaf rice is a long-standing South Indian tradition that has stood the test of time and migration. Rice - white or parboiled - is served on a banana leaf with an array of vegetables, poppadum and a selection of Indian pickles and condiments.



Traditionally, banana leaf rice is eaten by hand. There’s something magical about the interaction between hand, leaf and rice. The banana leaf is a practical substitute for a plate. It’s large—great for when you need a huge meal to drown your sorrows. It’s eco-friendly, especially in countries like India where non-biodegradable waste pollution is a serious problem with a population of just under 1.3 billion. According to some quarters, the leaf itself has antibacterial values, making it the perfect device for food. And most importantly, it’s quite simply a lovely experience. The banana leaf rice is messy and dynamic, with a diversity of flavours and textures that thrill the senses, best enjoyed with your hands, without the distraction of utensils.



In Malaysia, there are a few vital components to this dish on a leaf surrounding the rice: poriel (dry), kottu (wet), masala (spicy), and raita (made with yogurt) in the inner circle. On the outer parameter, you have pickles, poppadum, rasam, and thayir (yogurt). And finally, a healthy serving of dhal and/or curry poured over the rice.



In Malaysia, as with most Malaysian food, banana leaf rice has been localised, mainly to include meat and non-vegetarian sides such as chicken, mutton, fish, squid, and egg. Some believe those extra proteins elevates banana leaf rice from traditional to timeless in a diverse society such as Malaysia. If there’s truly an all-inclusive, universal meal in Malaysia, it has to be this: Indians, Chinese, Malays, foreigners; non-vegetarians and vegetarians; Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and even the non-believers all indulge in this delectable experience. Localisation has led to many traditional aspects of this dish to be dropped over time. However, one to take heed of is, folding the leaf inwards at the end of the meal as a gesture of gratitude to the host; with the exception of a funeral, where the leaf is folded outwards to express your condolences to the family of the deceased.



After many deep, philosophical talks about the science of banana leaf rice, we’ll leave you with a comment from a banana leaf aficionado that best sums it up: “I love it because it’s really fun. It’s an engaging meal, not just some food on a plate. With banana leaf you get to decide what goes into every mouthful you have. The wide range of flavours is exciting. And who doesn’t love eating with their hands.”



By Chris Lim

Photos by Joshua  Chay & Chris Lim / The Spacemen

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