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Digest Banana Leaf Rice 101: What you should know before your next meal

Banana Leaf Rice 101: What you should know before your next meal

Banana Leaf Rice 101: What you should know before your next meal
By Daween Maan
July 21, 2016
With the help of Jay Subramaniam, we bring you up to speed, ensuring you leave every meal feeling satisfied instead of cheated.

ANZGAM edit.jpgThere’s something magical about food when it’s steeped in tradition; the experience becomes more than just a session to eat, but the opportunity to prolong history. Banana leaf rice has folklore attached to it dating back thousands of years, to the time of Rama and Hanuman, and while some of those dining_tatler_stories may have been lost to us, the tradition of the meal itself has not.

Drop in at any number of banana leaf rice restaurants across the country and you’ll see a colourful range of Malaysians delighting in this equally colourful South Indian meal. But as with most things that build-up a following and generate healthy income, the sensationalism takes over initial intention. What started as a traditional meal enjoyed amongst Indians, became a tradition shared with all Malaysians before turning into the economical juggernaut it is now.

With banana leaf rice restaurants popping up everywhere across the nation, I reached out to Jay Subramaniam, the founder of the Facebook group ‘Indian Restaurant Cuthroats!’ to give me the 411 so I can give you a Banana Leaf Rice 101, to ensure you leave every banana leaf rice meal feeling satisfied instead of cheated.

 

"Only after savouring will you know what's hot and what's not."

 

Picking a restaurant

As with any meal, it starts with the restaurant itself, but picking a good one isn’t always easy. Jay suggests an adventurous ‘trial and error’ method and I agree. For starters, you could try one of these five tried and tested banana leaf rice restaurants. Additionally, I found the Indian Restaurant Cuthroats! community to be very helpful, and if all else fails ask your Indian friends of the restaurants they patronise most. But ultimately, you have to try a restaurant to know if it’s any good, and you should have plenty of fun until you find one.

Trust your senses 

Once you’ve picked a restaurant, let your eyes, nose and taste buds choose what to eat. With the vast variety of food and flavours on offer, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but take every visit as the opportunity to get in touch with your base desires and take every re-visit as the opportunity to try something new. Take the time to learn about the different meats and vegetables as well as the different cooking styles – masala, varuval and pirattal amongst others – and figure out which ones you like. And whatever you do, don’t ask the waiters, because it defeats the experience, or as Jay puts it: “It’s a visual thing. I see, I like, I choose, you serve.”

 

"We learn what our folks thought us, and in return we share it with our non-Indian friends"

 

Etiquette 

Being traditional, etiquette is important when it comes to a banana leaf rice meal. One part involves the practice of serving, namely the way the leaf is placed before a diner and where the food is placed on the leaf itself. Leave this to the waiters while you focus on the other aspects like utensils. Eating with your hands is a must! I myself never eat rice with my hands, unless I’m eating it on a banana leaf. Why? On one hand: it’s tradition! On the other hand: your utensils can damage or tear the banana leaf making a mess of the meal. Of course, there are always reason’s not to eat with your hands, but once in your life you should at least try it.

The folding aspect of the banana leaf is also contentious with many believing it to be a rating system – fold towards you if you’re satisfied and fold away if you’re not. However, this isn’t written in stone, so I would suggest just folding towards you or not folding at all. For a rating, Jay jokingly suggests a less traditional method: “a share on social media.” 

Service

Unlike many other cuisines where our interaction with waiters can be limited, a banana leaf rice meal can be continuous and will require good service from them to make a good meal. It isn’t rude to ask for more rice or more curry or more of anything really. A simple wave of your clean hand should have the waiter or waiters rushing to serve you. Some restaurants even have waiters moving through the restaurant carrying trays with little dishes of vegetables, curries and fried meat. Good service can make up for average food, while bad service can make even good food not worth the time and money.

 

“Cheap gets you two veggies, some papadum and rasam. Reasonable gets you the full on variety.”

 

Price 

Perhaps the most controversial part of a banana leaf rice meal is the price. Like most grocery and sundry items in Malaysia, the prices of many banana leaf rice outlets have skyrocketed in recent times. In fact, it was this increase in prices that led Jay to found the ‘Indian Restaurant Cuthroats!’ group, to give the public an avenue to share their experiences at unreasonable restaurants. However, note that “reasonable” doesn’t mean cheap.

“Cheap gets you two veggies, some papadum and rasam. Reasonable gets you the full on variety.”

As for what reasonable is, look for between RM10 and RM15 for an average portion including meat and a couple of veggies. Some can cost north of RM20 but few actually earn it.

Additional things you could discover along your culinary adventure are the items that shouldn’t cost you extra money. Look to get rasam, chutneys and even payasam at some places for free. In this case, you’re welcome to ask the waiter. A word to the wise however, some restaurants have begun charging for additional curry and even papadum, so be sure to ask before you order.

(photo: Indian Restaurant Cuthroats! community)

If banana leaf rice doesn't make you happier, maybe you should try eating more fruits and veggies.

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