Banana leaf rice, is very much part of the few favourite local food in Penang particularly along Little India within the George Town Heritage zone.
The term ‘banana leaf rice’, or just ‘banana leaf’, is used to describe a popular dish, which is essentially an Indian thali. Originally from South India, the dish consists of a mound of plain rice, with three or four different vegetable dishes served on a banana leaf cut to fit the glorious spread.
The meal is a simple one where fluffy white rice is served on a banana leaf and accompanied by a few types of vegetables, pickles, condiments like a chutney or mint sauce and papadum. The rice will be liberally mixed with your favourite type of curry. This basic version is usually referred as the vegetarian set.
For those who prefer a non-vegetarian meal, most banana leaf restaurants offer an extensive menu of curries with chicken, fish, lamb, eggs, quail, crabs and squids. There is also a variety of fried items to accompany your banana leaf rice.
The best way to enjoy your banana leaf rice is to dispense with any form of utensils and dig in using just your hands. Use only your right hand as the left hand is considered to be unclean and reserved only for bathroom activities.
In some restaurants, instead of the normal white rice, they offer a less starchy long-grain white rice with a firmer texture, known as parboiled or Indian rice, which goes perfectly with the accompanying curries.
The rice is of course best eaten drenched in a mix of curries such as dhal and sambar or the richer flavours of chicken or fish curries. Be warned, you may just be tempted to get a second helping of the delicious rice.
Banana leaf would not be complete without the crunchy pappadom, which are like large crisps made out of lentil, chickpea and gram flour as well as rice flour.
The papadum, though it may seem strange to serve crackers with rice, adds a nice dry, crunchy texture to the otherwise rich, moist, thick mixture of fluffy rice and spicy curries.
There is no hard and fast rule on which curry goes best with the banana leaf rice as it depends purely on your tolerance to the level of spice. To top it all off, a sour soup called rasam is served, alongside an option of plain yogurt.
What is to be noted of every banana leaf rice meal is that there is sure to be an explosion of flavours from the piquant chutney to the salty pickles to the medley of flavourful curries.
In certain banana leaf restaurants, the types of vegetables, chutney and pickles served with the rice varies from day to day to keep it interesting.
Banana leaf is usually served at midday till late in the afternoon, while some restaurants offer the dining experience during dinner time.
Here are some of the banana leaf restaurants to try out in George Town:
Veloo Villas Restaurant @ Penang Street (12pm – 9pm (close 4pm – 6pm))
Shusi Banana Leaf @ Penang Street (12pm – 9pm (close 4pm – 6pm))
Passions of Kerala @ New World Park, Burmah Road (11.30am – 10pm (close 4pm – 6pm))
Woodlands Vegetarian Restaurant @ Penang Street (11.30am – 10pm (close 4pm – 6pm))