South Indian food is a brilliant blend of flavors, colors, seasoning, aroma, textures, taste and visual appeal in both the vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Food is generally classified into six tastes – sweet, sour, salt, bitter, pungent and astringent (arusuvai unavu) and Tamil cuisine recommends that you include all of these six tastes in each main meal you eat. Each taste has a balancing ability and including some of each provides complete nutrition, minimizes cravings and balances the appetite and digestion.
The history of the South Indian traditional meal – Parimaral is truly unique. Despite the abundant knowledge of Indian food or Indian cooking, not many people is aware of the historical, diverse and cultural foundations of South Indian Cuisine that uses the banana leaf to serve meals. From the way you choose your spices and vegetables to the preparation of the meal, “plating” the food on a banana leaf, and the order of eating the different items on the leaf – every step is a testament to the authenticity and soulful enjoyment of eating from a Banana Leaf.
Besides being environmentally friendly, the banana leaf helps retain the flavor, aroma and nutritional value of the food placed on it. As the banana leaf is big in size, it provides ample space for the food to be laid in the traditional fashion. It is known fact that as soon as hot food is placed on a banana leaf, it releases a particular enzyme which further enhances the flavor of the food. And always remember that your host would have washed or wiped the banana leaf clean before serving food on it.
When serving food on banana leaf, always remember to place the banana leaf in the correct position. The most respected guest usually gets the tail end of the banana leaf and the tail end of the leaf is placed to your left. Traditionally, the banana leaf is placed only after the guest is seated. The top half part of the leaf is usually used for serving all the side dishes and the condiments while the lower part of the leaf is used for serving the rice. The rice is supposed to be served only after the guest is seated.
The top left of the banana leaf will usually have a bit of salt (this is for those who want to add more salt to their food – we Indians don’t need a salt shaker at the table) a little of pickle, a thuvayal and sometimes a bit of sweet and hot chutney.
Somewhere nearer to the middle where the rice is usually served will be the crisps like pappadums, banana chips, deep fried yoghurt chillies, vadagams, sometimes a vadai (deep fried urad dhall based savory doughnut)
Then on your right hand side, nearer to the corner all the curry, gravy items – the spicy, the sour and all the dry type of dishes are placed. Then of course there are the sweet dishes. Some are served in small pieces or in a smooth pudding or custard textured manner. This is usually eaten at the beginning of the meal or at the end of the meal.
In some vegetarian meals, there is a balanced of ‘English’ and ‘Indian vegetables. You are puzzled? Well, English vegetables are like the cauliflower, capsicums, carrots etc and Indian vegetables are like the drumsticks, snake gourds, winter melon etc.
And if you are having a non vegetarian meal, the basic vegetarian dishes are all laid out and the meat dishes are served separately in a plate. The dry type of dishes eg, the masala chicken or mysore mutton is place away from the dishes with gravies that flow.
When rice is served remember to make a well in the center of your rice mound where you can have the gravy dishes poured in!! If you are not a big time rice eater, using your hand separate the mound of rice first served into 4-5 imaginary groups. One to wed with the gravy dishes (sambar, moru, rasam, pulli kozumbu) and one to mingle with the semi dry dishes (nei paruppu, kootoo, poriyal, pachadi). Then the dry dishes like the crisps and wafers can be enjoyed by themselves!!
In a traditional setting example at a wedding where vegetarian meal is served, a smooth textured lentil dish, Nei Paruppu is served. This mildly spiced dhall is served with melted ghee.
The sambar, the most famous of all South Indian dishes is poured over the rice and eaten. To eat, using rice as a base, combine each of the various dishes, with a swirl of your fingers, gently kneading, slowly binding and intermixing each lentil, grain and or vegetable to another, in a dance of the morsels. J The most common combinations would be that of the rice and the sambar with any one dry vegetable.
The next course is rasam, the spicy, at times tangy, clear soup of the South Indian. This is also a digestive aid. After the rasam, the balance of the rice is moved aside to the side of the leaf and payasam, the sweet is served………….now this may be unbelievable but it is true. We eat our sweet in between the meal. Correct way to eat payasam is to have it on the banana leaf, crush a pappadum over it and slurp it out with your hand…… yes it is not served in a bowl or glass but on your banana leaf. And conquering this flowly sweet is an art you need to master. For me this is the most tastiest part of the whole banana leaf meal. But I was joking when I said no glass or bowl…….by all means ask your host for a glass or a bowl of payasam.
Finally, you finish off the meal with the balance of rice with tairu or moru. Tairu is yoghurt and moru is spiced buttermilk.