07 August 2004

KL Foodie 1 - Banana Leaf Rice

Bangsar is an uptown suburb in Kuala Lumpur. It's a hip and happening neighbourhood and a popular nightly watering hole for the expat crowd, the haves and the wanna-haves. Fancy cars, fashionable yuppies, hot babes, singles bars, overpriced drinks, overpriced food, valet parking, oh and the handful of balding and/or overweight business tycoons ....... you get the idea.

So like fish out of water, I need to steer waaaaaay clear of this neighbourhood. I definitely don't belong here, but hey, one of my favourite Indian restaurants is tucked away in a quiet corner.

It's common for proprietors of food establishments to line the sidewalks and streets with tables and chairs to accomodate the usually overflowing customers that throng to their eatery. Sure it may violate a handful of traffic, building code and sanitation regulations. But then, it also makes dining al'fresco a more comfortable option in view of the heat and humidity even in the evenings and nights here.

View of the sparse but sterile inside dining area.

This is what we're here for - banana leaf rice. A mountain of steaming hot plain rice is positioned centrally on a banana leaf, which is then flooded with curry as the supporting army of vegetables, pickles and papadams surround the mountain for that final ambush. Controlling the warfare in the background is the well-seasoned but hot-tempered General Chicken and the fiesty Captain Mutton. Attack!!!

Originating from Southern India, eating off a banana leaf continues to be a daily affair for the Indian community here in Malaysia. Like their brothers and sisters in the motherland, most are vegetarians (or at least on certain days of prayers) and will partake in the offering of rice and vegetables sans meat. Thankfully for you guys, the FatMan ain't a vegan. And if you're still wondering, you eat with your hand. Sure you can ask them for a fork and spoon, but don't chicken out if you want the full experience. It's finger lickin' good, Col. Sanders.

What you get with your order is a continuous flow of rice, 3 to 4 varieties of vegetables-of-the-day, spoonfuls of Indian "acar" pickles, Indian "papadam" crackers and several varieties of curry gravy - dhall, chicken, fish, mutton etc. (gravy only). Yes, for RM4.50 (USD1.20) you get a free-flow of all these goodies, as much as that tummy of yours can take. That's the standard vegetarian meal, without of course the meat-derived curry gravy.

To this basic meal you can add your choice of well over 20 dishes - dry curry chicken, curry mutton, fish curry, fried chicken, barbequed chicken, dry mutton curry, fried fish roe, crab crabs, curry fish head etc. etc. etc. Prices range from RM3.00 (USD0.80) to RM8.00 (USD2.10).

Today, this is what we got. On the leaf, from left to right - papadam (crackers), fried and salted whole chilies, cold cucumber salad in yoghurt with some pineapples and large onions, deep-fried breaded "pawakal" (bitter gourd) and a mushy potato + turnip + "dhall" (chickpeas) + mustard seed concoction. Rice is flooded with sourish fish curry gravy, my favourite. That's the vegetarian set with unlimited refills.

A close-up of the fried strips of bitter gourd and the "dalcha".

We had the deep-fried sliced "tenggiri" fish (mackerel) which was spiced with turmeric and curry powder. Fried to order so you can be assured it will arrive at your table piping-hot. RM3.00 (USD0.80) per slice.

This is the chicken "varuval". A dry curry heavily spiced with ginger, cinnamon sticks, star anise, aniseed, chili, coriander, fennel seed, cumin and pepper corn. Absolute heaven. RM3.50 (USD0.95) per plate.

They were out of mutton today, my favourite. So we ordered another chicken dish instead. This is the chicken "masala". A thick curry made with onion, chili, turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, tamarind juice and light coconut milk. Absolutely yummy. RM3.50 (USD0.95) per plate.

Southern Indian cuisine is spicier and more grassroot/barebone than their Northern Indian counterpart where dishes are typically milder (less spicy), richer and creamier with ample use of yoghurt, cream and home-made cheese (cultured milk) and in place of plain white rice you'll find "naan" (pita-like bread baked in clay tandoori ovens) or the richer "briyani" rice (superior basmathi rice).

No meal of this nature in Malaysia can be complete without a glass of the national drink, "teh tarik". In the Malay language, "teh" means tea and "tarik" means pull, so teh tarik would translate to be pulled tea - the action of tossing tea from one cup to another, the end result is an aerated glass of tea that froths at the top. This is how NOT to do it.

If you're more a traditionalist, you should end the meal with a cup of "rassam", or Indian sour soup, to rid that bloaty feeling after your sumptious meal. If it's done sour enough, it'll make your toenails curl.

And finally, some tips. You're suppose to use your right hand to eat, and never your left even if you're a leftie. In local culture, the left hand is stigmatised and associated with not-so-pleasant bodily duties. Also, at the end of the meal, you should be careful how you fold your banana leaf in half to indicate that you have completed your meal. Folding the leaf towards you (in the direction of 12 to 6 o'clock) indicates that you are satisfied and happy with the meal and folding it the other way around indicates the opposite. I doubt modern society interpretes these in any strict manner but just my 2 cents of worthless trivia nonetheless.


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