Eating on a banana leaf is one of the most eco-friendly, discardable food serving arrangements. It decomposes quickly and unlike a metal or porcelain plate, it requires very little washing with water. Plastic plates pollute the environment and are hazardous to animal and aquatic life.
This ‘banana leaf experience’ has been redefined by the traditional ‘sadya‘, or banquet, in Kerala. Sadya is a traditional vegetarian meal served on a banana leaf during weddings, festivals and other special occasions. All the dishes are served on the leaf and eaten with the bare hand. The banana leaf feels so clean and fresh, moreover, it is hygienic. It makes all the food on it more colourful and relishable! Ghee and oil do not stick to the banana leaf and so enjoying their flavours is easier. In fact, many a time the banana leaf is also used for cooking, especially steamed items.
Eating on a banana leaf is healthy. The antioxidants (polyphenols) in banana leaf are reported to help fight cancer. Another research says the leaf contains polyphenol oxidase that helps fight Parkinson’s disease. Banana leaves are also used in some ayurvedic medicinal preparations. By eating hot food on a banana leaf, one can get a lot of that good stuff though the leaf is hard to digest for the human when eaten as-is.
A simple sprinkling of water is enough to clean a banana leaf. That is to get rid of impurities that may be sticking to the leaf. When you are eating at places with questionable hygiene it is always preferable to eat in a banana leaf than an inadequately cleaned plate. When hot rice is put on a banana leaf it swelters. The rice absorbs the chlorophyll in the leaf and a flavour is produced. When hot food is served on the leaf, the polyphenols (EGCC) in it are activated and get absorbed into the food and finally into our system. This was yet another reason that food was always cooked fresh and eaten piping hot on a banana leaf. By the time the final course of the curd/buttermilk came, any remaining benefit of the leaf was wiped clean by the hand and eaten!
It is waterproof. South Indian foods involve a lot of liquids and many other biomaterials that don’t fit in easily. The leaves can be quite big and are great to present the diverse foodstuffs in a South Indian menu. Most plates are not suitable in this respect. Since the leaf can hold a large quantity of food, it requires less number of trips for serving and thus it is easy when you are serving parties of 1000s of people (not unusual in many Indian weddings). It adds a nice aroma to the food and improves the taste of some foods like rasam.
Banana leaf meal etiquette also dictates that, after partaking the meal, the guest must fold the banana leaf inwards as a sign of gratefulness to the host, even when the host is the owner of an eatery. However, when meals are served at funerals, the leaf is folded outwards as a sign of condolence to the family of the departed. Due to this, folding the leaf outwards is considered rude in any other circumstance. Remember, always fold it towards you!