From a tribal innovation to being the figurehead of the back-to-roots movement among chefs, leaf—cooking in, cooking with and eating—has been the necessary thread of our (and the world’s) culinary tapestry.
Every year in April, the Phom Naga tribe celebrate Monyu, a six-day festival that marks the arrival of spring. Gifts are exchanged, rice beer flows freely and there is a huge feast that goes on for days. But there is one dish, says Naga cuisine specialist Chef Joel Basumatari, “that is almost ritualistic in its existence and is called Anphet. Often made for close families and in-laws, this ancient dish is prepared with leftover meat which is mixed with hand-pounded rice, dried yam leaves and herbs.”
Interestingly, cooking with and in leaves is nothing new to India (or Asia). The tradition of using them as natural plates and culinary vessels dates to ancient time, when cooking in leaves and with leaves was considered the most effective way of cooking. In fact, says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director – Food Production, The Park Kolkata), “Leaves, especially of those fruits, stems and roots that could be eaten were considered the safest way of cooking.” Leaves, adds Chefpreneur Sabyasachi Gorai (Lavaash By Saby), “in fact, are the natural packages that could transport food while keeping it moist.”
Why leaves became popular?
What, says Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Sriracha), “men discovered over the years is that leaves in different stages made for great flavourants as well, and by that I don’t just mean the ones that were used to cook in but those that were added to the curry or a dish to make it wholesome and delicious.” That awareness resulted in a slew of leaf-based and cooked in leaf delicacies that spanned from Enduri Pitha, a sweet rice crepe made with turmeric leaf to the array of leaf-based dishes like the sarson ka saag, saag gosht, thankuni (Cantella) diyae illish jhol, pui (Malabar Spinach) saag chorchori and more.
In fact, the Bengali bhapa maach (steamed fish), says Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti (Corporate Chef, Rajkutir), “is perhaps one of the oldest leaf cooking styles that dates to pre-Kalinga period.” Many believe that the Bhapa Maach and Kaukharu Saag Pathua (steamed vegetables in pumpkin leaf) and even Panki were the result of the tradition of leaf cooking that existed on the periphery of the ports and were considered safe and delicious.
What gave leaf cooking its long tenure?
The ready availability and taste were one part of the story, says leading nutritionist, Sveta Bhassin. “But the main reason was health. Cooking in leaves helps preserve the integrity of the structural and nutrient composition of food. And thus, was highly recommended by ancient science as a more conscious way of eating.” she explains.
This perhaps could explain why a lot of food was cooked with leaf and even served in a leaf like the gobindbhog rice in Lavaash by Saby that is served on a Sal Patta. The reasons, adds Chef Gorai, “are two: first, it keeps the flavours of the rice intact; and two, it also adds this very nostalgic aroma of eating at your grandmother’s place. “Such technique, says Chef Basumatari, who uses fern leaves to cover the meat while cooking, “keeps the food naturally moist and hence more flavoursome.” An excellent example of this is the Niekhrü da, a traditional Naga delicacy, this essentially is made of sticky rice pounded in chekhie (traditional mortar and pestle) and made into a paste and wrapped in banana leaves and poached in water till done. This is served with spiced meat, which is again steamed using fig/turmeric or even teak leaves depending on the season.”
Chef Ajay Anand (Culinary Director, Pullman New Delhi Aerocity) adds that cooking with leaves come with the extra benefit of being rich in natural fibre, and astringent properties which are good for the skin. “To get those perks one has to eat the leaf as well and not just cook in it. And that is where dishes like the Armenian dolma and Oriya patrapoda come as such interesting dishes.”
Leaves, in fact, says Bhassin, “when cooked with give very little to the food. They work as mere protectors, it is only when you consume it that you get the necessary chlorophyll and pigments that are the most valuable form of antioxidant that can work for your skin.”
Some Famous Ones
Curiously, while most leaves are edible in degrees, there are a few leaves that were more apt for cooking than eating. Like banana, lotus leaves and those of jackfruit, says Chef Praveen Shetty (Executive Chef, Conrad Bengaluru), “and the reason for this is their heat resistance.” Like the screw pine leaves or pandan leaf, which is used in making traditional Moode, an idli delicacy from Mangaluru, is known for its pine shape; like Manjal Irre dha Gatti, which is a Mangalorean/ Konkani dish made in turmeric leaf, and is a sweet delicacy.
Likewise, is the case of the Gujarati favourite Panki. Essentially a thin crepe made of chickpea flour, says Chef Partner Thomas Zacharias (Bombay Canteen), “the reason for cooking it inside a banana leaf is to ensure that there is that hint of freshness but without changing the taste composition of the dish.”
For Pastry Chef Heena Punwani O Pedro, the know-how showcased as Patoleo, a wafer thin rice crepe stuffed with coconut and jaggery and steamed in a turmeric leaf to enhance its flavour. Only in Chef Punwani version, the jaggery now is a caramelised drizzle on the crepe that is served with beaten rice (poha) granola and vanilla bean ice cream.
And for Chef Gorai, the know-how manifested itself as Matnakash Claypot Bread. This Armenian bread which is baked in a clay pot over the tonir has a sheath of saal patta (Shorea robusta), “which gives it that softness without burning the chironji. This makes the bread a perfect accompaniment with rizala.”