It’s safe, healthy, sustainable, versatile and lends this nice aroma to a dish. But is that why cooking in leaves has become such a figurehead in the sustainable food movement and among chefs? Here’s the unwrap.
Come monsoon, and the one thing that starts showing in the market are pumpkin leaves. “Rainy season,” says culinary researcher Alka Jena, “is like the second season of fruiting for this climber. For a week, it grows as if in Jack and the Beanstalk, taking on every nook and cranny of the garden. They grow fast and soon, the leaves are good enough to be plucked for making a good meal of saag with mustard paste. However, given their fibrous nature, it is preferred more as a wrap to cook food rather than just another leafy green that is good for health.”
Alka’s favourite method of utilising the leaf is to create these money bags-like dumplings that are filled with finely chopped seasonal vegetables that are vigorously seasoned with either mustard paste called besara or with a roughly pounded mix of onion-garlic-chillies. Steamed and then pan toasted slowly, these dumplings turn into an amazing treat where you can, adds Alka, “eat even the leaf which is now more supple and is more nourishing”. Like Alka, most Bengali and Odia homes during this season often choose the pumpkin leaf instead of banana for most of their steamed/griddle roasted dishes.
Cooking in leaves during monsoon isn’t limited to Odisha only, it is a practice that one finds across India, where different cultures use an array of interesting leaves in some of the fascinating formats. In Bengal, the cooking of food wrapped in Sal leaf, Colocasia leaf and that of lotus becomes a mainstay during monsoon thanks to the amazing aroma these leaves lend to the dish. Also, leaves pare down the chance of food getting bad or infected, says Bengali food specialist Sumanta Chakrabarti (Corporate Chef, Sonar Tori). For Naga cuisine expert, Chef Joel Basumatary, the practice of using leaf, especially dried yam greens, starts around this time with the festival of Monyu, a six-day festival that marks the arrival of spring in April and an ancient dish called Anphet, which is made of “leftover meat mixed with hand-pounded rice, dried yam leaves and herbs and cooked inside fresh bamboo,” says Chef Basumatary, who talks about Niekhrü da, a traditional Naga delicacy made of sticky rice pounded in chekhie (traditional mortar and pestle) into a paste and then wrapped in banana leaves and poached. This is served with spiced pork made using fig or teak leaves.
Storing meat and cooking it in the same leaves is a tradition that most of the shepherd community in the high hills of Himachal follow too. Their signature dish, the Chha Gosht gets most of its flavours from the wild leaves and barks that are used to wrap the meat and bury it in snow for safekeeping during winters. Now, of course, most of the taste of the meat is achieved by cooking it in a mesh of Kangra tea leaves that gives the meat its aroma and retains the tenderness.
The tradition of using leaves as natural plates and culinary vessels is an age-old practice, says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director – Food Production, The Park Kolkata), who in his research found that the preference was given mostly to leaves of fruits and roots as they were sturdier and would affect little or no change to the original flavour of a dish. The other reason, of course, is that leaves, says Chef Vikas Seth ((Culinary Director, Sriracha), “work as this non-interfering foil that keeps the flavours of the spices intact while keeping the food – which mostly is some form of protein – moist.” It is this property of leaves that has allowed Chef Seth to use leaves of banana and sal to recreate the atta chicken by replacing muslin cloth with a sheet of leaf that keeps the meat moist and the masala “from sticking to the dough, making it soggy”.
Chef Seth who rediscovered the magic of cooking with leaves, especially around the rainy season when steamed, grilled food takes precedence over spice laden dishes, while creating Sriracha’s signature dish of Pandan Leaf Wrapped Cottage Cheese, earmarks the technique of leaf cooking as one of the healthiest and the most nutritious. “Think about it, leaves,” he says, “are like nature’s best parchment paper for making food practically oil free – one doesn’t need to add any more oil except for what there is in the marination – and still get a dish that fires on all taste cylinders with a bonus of perhaps having this subtle hint of aroma that adds to the dining experience.”
For culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, leaf cooking is perhaps one of the finest learnings while working with legacy cuisine, and he finds that there are leaves for every form of cooking. “Be it baking (podo pitha with sal leaf or mahua leaf) to pathode (made in arbi leaf) to pan Sandesh that are steamed in kada (bitter tasting) paan from Kolkata, they’re all fine examples of how leaves can be used as natural vessels that are great at preserving nutrients while creating tasteful food. One of the finest instances of the wonders of leaf cooking which most old texts refer to as the non-invasive way of making food is the macha poda served in the coastal town of Brahmagiri near Puri. Seasoned with simple spices, lemon, pounded garlic, shallots, ginger, salt and turmeric, it is the double wrapping of banana leaf that does all the work of creating this parcel that cooks the fish while giving it that smokiness.”
The flavours and taste, are they enough reason for taking up cooking in leaf this monsoon? Yes, says leading nutritionist, Sveta Bhassin, “It is also healthy. Cooking in leaf, for long, has been considered one of the safest modes of cooking as plants instantly react to anything chemical and poisonous. Also, 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.”
While the whole assumption that cooking with leaf adds chlorophyll is a myth, leaves, adds Chef Dewan, “do have the ability to infuse flavours, like bay leaf, jackfruit and mango and do make for an interesting addition. The best way to start cooking, however, is to begin with leaves two ways – use the new leaf as the first foil and then tested ones like that of banana, sal or even arbi as the second. You would be surprised the kind of interesting aromas such a braiding can lead to”.