Route to ‘Sal’vation

In the forest, they may be a secondary asset, but in the food world, Sal leaves play the quintessential role of the multifunctional, sustainable hero.

Fact: There is no research to prove that cooking or eating on a Sal leaf adds more nutrients to your food. No, the chlorophyll goodness that we associate with eating on a leaf might not be true. 

Also, a fact: Food cooked wrapped in a Sal leaf and served on one, tastes infinitely more soulful.

But is that the sole reason that the Sal leaf, a native of eastern Odisha, is so widely used in the culinary world? Not really, says Assamese-Bengali cuisine expert, Chef Anirban Dasgupta, who has been working with Sal leaves for the past eight years and calls it a “brilliant tastemaker”.

“The beauty or brilliance of this leaf,” he says, “is not only in the fact that you can use it both in fresh and dried form – in fact, it scores over the others in this regard. But it also works as this white canvas which can be tweaked to add a different kind of flavour to your dish.”

Lavaash by saby
Chef Sabyasachi Gorai uses Sal leaves to not just present food but even in cooking and storing.
Photo courtesy: Chef Sabyasachi Gorai

Culinary anthropologist, Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, concurs. He first began experimenting with Sal leaves as part of his twin projects: Mineority by Saby and Lavaash By Saby, which took him to the stretch beyond Asansol – an area known for its Sal leaves, and has since been using the leaves not just to present food, but as part of his cooking and even for storing food in the kitchen as part of his “eco-friendly” philosophy.

“What I am doing is nothing new,” says Chef Gorai. “Sal leaf was the first iteration of carry bags in eastern India and is still used widely in smaller towns where everything from flowers to meat are wrapped in this leaf. And for good reason. The leaf has this amazing capability of not just preserving meat, but also masks much of the gamey smell by infusing it with this pine-like, sweet, earthy aroma.”

“This, perhaps, explains why traditionally,” adds Chef Dasgupta, “a lot of foods that needed to be marinated overnight were wrapped in Sal leaves. It just adds something extra to make good food, great.”

Fascinatingly, the Sal leaf’s uniqueness doesn’t end at effectively preserving food. It extends to the arena of cooking as well, especially in high-heat techniques such as baking.

Sal leaf food presentation
Across eastern and southern India, the Sal leaf is used in an entire array of baked delicacies.

Take the example of Dolma, Chef Gorai offers as an example. While this Armenian dish can be cooked in a steamer, wrapped in the Sal leaf, it would not turn chewy even if the cooking is prolonged by a few minutes. Similarly, the Odia Chenna Poda, demonstrates the Sal leaf’s ability to withstand a good amount of heat. In fact, the reason behind the Chenna Poda’s soft, non-chewy texture is the use of fresh Sal leaves, which protect the cake-shaped chenna (fresh cottage cheese) from bearing the brunt of high heat – and by baking here, we are talking about a kiln oven where the chenna mixture cooks overnight to become this amazing cheesecake.

The Sal leaf’s ability to not just produce exceptional flavours but also yield to different techniques has made it an integral part of many food sub-cultures across the eastern and southern parts of India. A dazzling display of the Sal leaf’s versatile response to techniques is the entire array of ‘poda’ (burnt/baked) delicacies made in Bihar, Odisha and Bengal, where a mélange of produce, fish or meat are wrapped in the leaf and char-grilled until the leaf turns a shade of black.

“It is a stage,” says Chef Gorai, “at which most leaves would start disintegrating. But not the Sal leaf, which holds fort until it is torn open to reveal the perfectly cooked dish inside that has used minimal oil, is tasty and has all nutrients intact.”  

Atta chicken
Chef Vikas Seth swears by the Sal leaf’s ability to keep meat moist and also lend an earthy aroma to the dish.
Photo courtest: Chef Vikas Seth

Chef Vikas Seth (culinary director, Hopshaus, Bengaluru) agrees. He began using Sal leaves for his version of the Atta Chicken for one reason: “Its fantastic ability to keep the meat moist”. Chef Seth recalls, “Traditionally, muslin cloth or chapatis were used to make this farmer’s dish, which had that stiff tear quality to it, given that the chicken used was desi murgi that can withstand pit cooking as well. In our version, we needed it to be moist and the answer, after using a slew of popular leaves, turned out to be fresh Sal leaf. The meat isn’t just moist but there is this earthy aroma and aftertaste that not many leaves can lend to the dish with such measured accuracy.”

It is something that chef Praveen Shetty (Executive Chef, Conrad Bengaluru) endorses completely. “We use a lot of leaves in Caraway Kitchen, our Karnataka food speciality outlet, thanks to both the tradition of using it and as part of our minimum wastage philosophy. Most of our steaming and infusing is done using leaves that range from jackfruit to Colocasia, and we even have a sweet dish made in fresh bay leaf. But when it comes to dishes that are slow cooked, grilled or baked, nothing makes for a better vessel than a Sal leaf. In fact, most of our meats that are marinated are stowed in Sal leaves and then, the same leaf goes into the baking or cooking of it. It cranks up the flavour and is almost a natural pressure cooker that keeps goodness intact.”

Which brings us to why it’s so widely used. There are two reasons for this, according to traditional food and veda expert Minati Parhi. “One, the Sal leaf is deeply associated with our religion as part of the naivedyam offering. As a matter of fact, many tribes, including the Santhals, look upon the tree as a sacred symbol of Lord Vishnu and consider having food on Sal leaf that has fallen from the tree and was not plucked, as part of a divine blessing. In fact, the tree quizzically drops it leaves – fresh and dried – as an indication to cook food accordingly. And the other reason why Sal leaf has been so widely used, even in Madhya Pradesh to cook the local-favourite paniya (flatbread that is steamed using two plates of the leaf), is thanks to the British, who used Sal wood as an effective replacement for teak.”

Angiosperm taxonomy expert Santosh Lalji Yadav says, “The plant is low-maintenance – it is termite resistant and often self-pollinates. Naturally, it became the best choice for keeping the earth green.”

However, the most interesting usage of Sal leaf, says pastry expert, chef Avijit Ghosh, is in creating chocolates. He adds, “The Sal seed butter has all the qualities of a naturally occurring butter and also has this amazing pine-like quality about it. A flavour profile that is accentuated further when chocolate is set on the leaf itself, which also gives the chocolate its texturing.”

The bonus, say experts, is the biodegradability of Sal leaves. It takes less than half a week to become manure for the land.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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