Declared as the most hygienic meal in the world, this is a spread to be seen, tasted and enjoyed. Authentically speaking, the dishes are served in a banana leaf, which is cut and washed and laid out in a line, narrow side to the left of the person. All the family members sit on the floor and get served. Big leaves for the male adults, small leaves for the children, women eat later - standard practise! (interestingly the men dont even bother to ask if the women had a filling meal.)
A typical practise is to start serving with the payasam(or sweet) at the bottom right of the leaf. Next to follow is the main course. No body starts the meal before the side dishes are served first. This would include two curries, typically beans in coconut, and dry potato if you got lucky, typically rationed...all good things are rationed. Along with it is "pollangai kuutu" which has turned yellow showing the turmeric presense in it. A pickle is a must and so is the apalam/ papadam(the greatest invention of man, something that is jealously guarded and unfortunately rationed - i never understood that though). These kuutus and curries are assigned places on the banana leaf. The occupy the upper section of the leaf beyond the midriff away from you. The dal, of course is at the bottom right next to the payasam. By now the payasam would be meandering to the center of the leaf or probably out, so your fight to keep the food within the boundaries of the leaf has begun. Ha! wait till the rasam comes!!!
Once these are served, the big guys show up, hot steaming rice served from a plate and not from a vessel, and the ghee and the sambar! A few faces would fall if what fell out with the sambar were healthy drumsticks laughing at you on the descent to the leaf when you hoped to see small onions (man nothing like onion sambar with potato and apalam). The ritual begins, the older respected men folk pick up their steel tumblers and perform a small ritual, i would assume was offering the food to the Gods, who by now would have wondered whether the menu was all that great! ;)
This ritual (if i remember seeing it right) entails the person to put some water into his right palm, circle it around the banana leaf thrice, guiding the right hand with the left, the ring finger of which touches the elbow of the right hand along the way, dropping water into the kuutu, mumbling something(which i cant remember) and finally consuming what ever is left of it and sprinkling the remaining over their heads. there is a way of holding the palm... well what ever.. we discriminated women never got to learn it...will ask dad and come back.
Well by now, the meal begins, the payasam goes in first, then the dal gets mixed with the rice which now is soaked in sambar and all you can see is a bunch of drumsticks partying above it. They are promptly picked and left to the top right corner of the leaf, to be dealt with later. Why not consume it right away? well there is a reason!! if you consume any thing you dont like, you get served again and the pain of consuming it the second time is a pain you just dont want to go through. The avaraikaays and the drumsticks belong to the category of perennial vegetables in the leaf that just dont go down your throat till the end of the meal - hence the party!
The apalams and the potatoes invariably get over and a second helping is doubtful, increasing your psychological state that your hunger has just not died. This is a problem in brahmin households where we kids are always hungry because the good food is never enough while the brinjals and the less interesting vegetables always seem to come in for even a third helping. Post sambar rice, is rasam! A watery soup delicious to taste but hard to handle on a banana leaf if you are not accustomed to it. Its not a simple meandering stream in your leaf, its a flood!
Its an art to lift off watery soups with rice vigorously off your plate and not have it dripping along the way. Of course you would not want to see a few adults almost lick up to the end of the palms to stop the rasam from flowing down to their elbows. Its a sight!!! When you think the war with liquids is over in comes the second round of payasam which is served after the first two courses just before the grand finale - curd rice. The entry of curd rice into your leaf indicates you are at the end of your meal. Curd is an amazing creation and with rice its just simply out of the world. Its one of the coolest, simplest most healthy foods. Curd declares closure of the meal, by now all those drumsticks and kuutus have to get cleared if not done already. Every thing gets cleared leaving the leaf empty for the cows.
Meanwhile, handling boring veggies and fat drumsticks is an art. Either you have them to the end, to avoid being served again, which is the case when a painful uncle decides to chew your happiness and says in loud heehaws "hey serve her some more drumstick..." or the ever so generous women of the house decide to feed you well with the wrong things. So how do you hide these guys when you really dont want to eat them?
There are a few prerequisites for this. To start with you need to be served in steel plates, so that you can guide the drumsticks to the dust bin and not have a health concious aunt say " hey why did you leave it, dont you like it" very emotionally that makes you squirm on the way, worse mom hears it and makes you eat it, standing where ever you are, while the other cousins laugh triumphantly on the way declaring they have completed their meal, showing fairly clean plates.
But well if you DO manage to get to the sink, you simply take the less fortunate drumsticks and tuck them into a plate which was ideally used by another cousin so that he gets caught and you dont. Dont put in adult plates, they normally chew the drumstick so bad that you feel sad... "party is over guys", for what remains of the drumstick is a sad fibrous mass, from which every shred of life has been sucked out by extremely powerful set of teeth. They leave nothing to doubt. The drumsticks are now truly dead. If you dont get another plate to tuck the drumstick into, then put it in the dustbin, but be careful, hide it under something, for example, mango skin cleaned out, or an aavin/heritage milk packet, or coconut fibre which is on the top layer of the dustbin so that the wastage is not clearly visible. If it is there is a cry from the kitchen, "who wasted the drumstick" and all the kids end up pointing to each other. Its judgement time and all of us chose to avoid the confrontation.
Finishing a less interesting meal, is a task, where you psychologically read the mind of the elderly lady serving so that you dont call attention to yourself and hence dont have more drumsticks falling into your banana leaf. It used to be a lot of brain work to get those veggies into a very rebellious throat which would simply not approve of it.
And now when i look back after hostel and eating all over the place... i cant wait to just sink my teeth into drumstick and chew the last bit of life out of it!!!
I miss a truly amazing brahmin meal when i dont get one!