Food: Return to eating and cooking in a leaf

Jun 25, 2017, 18:40 IST | Anju Maskeri and Kusumita Das

Going green seems to have acquired a new meaning, as chefs get experimental with leaves. And no, it does not necessarily imply vegetarian

When we talk of eating out of a leaf, the first image to crop into our heads is a meal at a traditional south Indian restaurant. Even as that continues to be the norm, and a much-loved one at that, chefs appear to be getting playful with the concept of serving dishes on a leaf. The banana leaf still rules, albeit in more unconventional forms, but also coming into play are vine leaves, the pan leaf and the lotus leaf too. While a leafy background makes the plate all the more photogenic, leaves are also used to lock flavours of the content wrapped within, keeping the experience fresh as it comes.

paan Ice Cream
Turban Tales, Powai
Making use of the pan as a popular palate cleanser, chef Harmeet Singh conceptualised this dessert around it. "The betel leaf is one of the oldest forms of mints known to Indians. However, due to the tobacco that's added to it, people avoid it. The paan ice cream we serve here has no tobacco, but retains the actual taste and other ingredients of the paan. The idea is to have the ice-cream with the paan leaf. It works as a refreshing palate cleanser." The dish is topped with liquid nitrogen, lending it a dramatic aura.

Crab Adajina
Thangabali, Mahim
At Thangabali, tucked in a quiet lane in Mahim, almost all dishes are served on a banana leaf except the beverages and desserts. "Banana leaves are waterproof and eco-friendly. They also have a natural wax coating that has a subtle yet distinct flavour," says co-owner Dharmesh Karmokar. The crab adajina is a semi moist dish prepared with freshly grated coconut. The masalas are tossed in the pan along with the crab, giving it a stir fried flavour. "Our South Indian patrons love it for obvious reasons, and so do the foreigners."

Black Cod with Yuzu Miso
Umame, Churchgate
At Umame, the black cod with yuzu miso and sticky rice is served on a hoba leaf that's imported from Japan. Apart from being the signature dish, it's also one of the most expensive items on the menu, ever since the restaurant opened in 2013.

"It's got a lot of Japanese influences with yuzu, Japanese lime, miso — a traditional Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting soybeans and of course hoba leaf which is essentially magnolia," says chef Marzbaan Amroliwala. Here, the black cod is grilled with the hoba leaf placed under it through the process.

"The leaf prevents the cod from getting burnt and also helps absorb flavour. So, you've got a bit of zestiness from the yuzu and saltiness from the miso, apart from the distinct taste of hoba," he explains. While the dried variety is more abundantly available, it's the fresh hoba leaves that are trickier to procure," he says.

Bhune Tawa Chops
Cafe Haww Se, Lower Parel
Like Karmokar, chef Milan Gupta of Cafe Haqq Se prefers serving all the starters on a brass plate lined with banana leaves. "It's a misconception that serving on banana leaves is a South Indian idea. It's more of an Indian concept," he says, adding that although the advent of metal diminished the popularity of banana leaves, it continues to be used in several pockets across the country. The objective, for him, is to connect patrons to their desi roots.

All the starters are served on banana leaves placed on brass plates.Pics/Suresh Karkera and Datta Kumbhar
All the starters are served on banana leaves placed on brass plates.Pics/Suresh Karkera and Datta Kumbhar

Keeping this in mind, he's introdued the Bhune Tawa Chops, a traditional Punjabi dish that city folks might not be familiar with. "Here, the lamb chops are slow cooked on a tawa. In this method, the meat becomes tender and the juices are retained. Serving it on banana leaf is thecherry on the cake," he says.

Lotus Leaf Rice
China Bistro, Worli
This one is a typical Oriental dish that gets its own twist in the hands of chef Mriganka Mandal, who has been associated with the eatery since its inception in 2011.

"It's a guest favourite and one that is hard to go wrong with," he says. The procedure is rather simple. The rice is boiled, wrapped in the lotus leaf and steamed for five to seven minutes. "I add celery sticks, American corn and onions to the rice — the flavours marry well with the leaf. The beauty of this dish is in the flavour that the leaf imparts, when steamed. You can't recreate that in any other way. It goes best with any mildly spiced red gravy."

Vine Leaf Wrapped Brie
Woodside Inn, Lower Parel
This dish was born from a brainstorming session on vegetarian bar snacks. Chef Nikhil Abhyankar and his team were looking for ways to add novelty to cheese, when they thought of experimenting with vine leaves. The leaves are soaked in vinegar overnight to rid them of their bitterness. The next day, the vinegar is washed off and the leaves are marinated in basil oil to infuse sweetness. "We wrap the brie in the vine leaves and refrigerate it. When the order is placed, we sear it in a hot pan and serve it. The cheese is nearly molten by then," he says.

Meen Polichattu
Tamasha, Lower Parel
This Kerala sea-food delicacy is a Mumbai favourite too. 'Meen' here refers to fish — mostly king fish — while polichattu is the banana leaf.
"The fish is marinated in Kerala spices, wrapped in a banana leaf and pan-seared. The flavour of the banana leaf is integral to the dish, and since the leaves let out water, the fish gets steamed and pan-seared simultaneously," says chef Jehangir Jamula. The dish is served with Malabar paratha and kuttu cabbage (cabbage tossed in mustard seeds and grated coconut).

Mario's Mango Prawn with Coconut Rice
Bombay Brasserie, Worli
Inspired by the spicy Goa Ambotik masala, Bombay Brassiere has rolled out Mario's Mango Prawn curry, where the accompanying dish is coconut rice steamed in a banana leaf.

The gravy, made with Goan chillies and semi ripe mangoes, is tangy, while the rice is comforting with a seasoning of curry leaves. "It makes for a perfect balance," says Shikha Nath, brand director. Nath, who during the food trials, experimented with the dish using a foil, says it makes a world of difference when you use banana leaves.

Rice Pancake and Basil Chicken Cups
Mamagoto, all outlets
At this Pan Asian eatery, guests can savour multiple leafy delicacies. While in some, the leaf is only for presentation, other dishes use it for cooking too. The rice pancake, for instance, is served on a banana leaf. "It's like a Thai dosa, if you will, made of rice flour, stuffed with chicken. The banana leaf in this dish is for plating only, a shout-out to the street-style hawkers there," says Janti Duggal, food manager. The basil chicken cups are another concept altogether, where stir fried basil chicken is stuffed into lettuce cups. "You eat it with the lettuce cups. The idea is to complement the spicy chicken with cold, crispy lettuce," she adds. They also have a vegetarian version that serves soya chunks instead of chicken.

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