Eco-friendly and cost-effective plates are a good alternative to non-biodegradable plastic
For centuries, the banana leaf has been an integral part of Indian culture. In auspicious occasions such as weddings and pujas, it almost invariably finds a place at the entrance. Even in the mandap, where wedding ceremonies are performed, it is the central element of decoration. The humble leaf is considered so clean and pure that for years, people have used it to eat their food in, be it at home, during community lunches or in temple feasts. What’s more, it is eco-friendly and a sustainable alternative to the non-biodegradable plastic plate.
No wonder then, banana is grown extensively in the country’s tropical region, where it grows fastest. And some, grown exclusively for their leaves, start yielding big leaves within two months of its plantation. Farmers in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, estimate that a 0.8 hectare banana leaf plantation can ensure income all through the year.
Banana leaf is a must-keep for the street food vendors of southern India. They use it as plates or to pack idlis, dosas and vadas for takeaways. The irreplaceable accompaniment with these delicacies, the chutney, is also wrapped in small parcels and slipped safely inside the big ones. In Chennai, Madurai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Mysuru, vegetable and flower markets have areas dedicated to banana leaves. Here, a bundle of 10 leaves can cost between Rs 20 and Rs 50, and a bundle of 80, about Rs 150. In cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi where these leaves are not used extensively, its availability is restricted to specific areas and at a premium.
Sneha Saikia, who hosts Assamese food pop-ups at her house in south Delhi, gets fresh leaves from INA market for Rs 20 per piece. In Chittaranjan Park market, also in south Delhi, it can cost Rs 100 per piece.
The cost varies according to size as well. It is not difficult to find the leaves cut in plate-size circles in local markets. In luxury hotels these are placed on plates before serving food. In Delhi’s markets, circular leaf portions cost between Rs 3 and Rs 7, while whole leaves come for Rs 10, says chef Ravitej, who has worked in luxury hotels and is now into catering in fine dine restaurants in Delhi and the national capital region. In small dhabas, bigger leaves serve as the plate itself. Their use saves the owner the cost and labour of maintaining a large inventory of utensils. They are easy to stack, can be rolled into bundles for easy transport, and stay fresh for at least a week. Its waxy surface does not allow fungal growth preventing them from rotting. The leaves are large and can accommodate multiple food items. And people like to eat in them. They give an authentic feel to Indian food.
Fresh leaves are also widely used by fruit-sellers who ferry the streets and markets during summer months to sell small fruits such as jamun, phalsa, mulberries and kafal foraged from the jungles. They make large bowls from palash and other tree leaves, also foraged from the jungles, and use them for packaging.
Fresh leaves have their limitations. It is impossible to use them in buffet arrangements as they are not firm enough to be held in hand along with food. Fresh banana leaves cannot be used when they become dry. Trees such as palash and kachnar have big and sturdy leaves that can be stitched together as plates and used fresh or dry. The dried leaf plates, called pattal, are popular in north India where banana is not the traditional crop.
But the industry is primarily managed by individual foragers who sell their produce in traditional markets. Ghanshyam, a pattal-maker of palash leaves, showcases his donas (bowls) with pride in the lanes of old Varanasi. These are so tightly stitched together that even water cannot leak through it. Ghanshyam boasts he supplies pattals to celebrities who like to use traditional plates in auspicious occasions. He makes about a dozen bundles of about 100 plates a day, each bundle costing Rs 250. In wedding season, his entire family gets busy making these sturdy pattals. Income from it helps them in the lean season.
Small-scale factories make durable pattals by hot press mould method. The leaves are moulded to make sturdy plates with raised rims and even with sections to hold dal and curry. The Central Food Technology Research Institute, Mysuru, has developed hot press moulds and machines to make plates using dry areca and other palm leaves.
Ecologically conscious small-scale businesses have taken the lead in making sturdy plates and bowls using industrial bagasse. Nature’s Solutions Leaf Tableware uses corrugated paper sheets to provide strength to the base. With disposable plastic plates wreaking havoc to environment, the need is to make plates from renewable resources. Fibre of fallen banana trees, jute, industrial bagasse, tender coconut shells and coconut husk are good pattal materials. There are also innovative options to make plates from plant-based gums and jute fiber. These save us the irony of eating in plastic plates that look like pattals, which keep the faith alive but defeat the purpose of sustainability.
(Sangeeta Khanna is a food and nutrition consultant who is popularising traditional foods)
(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated May 1-15, 2019)
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