One of the earliest instances of culinary improvisation by humans has to be wrapping food in leaves and steaming or roasting it. Thought up by some hunter-gatherer ancestor, it is a stroke of ingenuity – simple but brilliant. The leaves make for an impervious casing that protect the food from being exposed to direct heat and prevent dirt or fluids from seeping in. The leaves also trap some steam and seal in the flavours, allowing the food to cook unhurried in mellow heat, steeping in its own juices. The results are fantastic.

For the primitive foraging societies, the choice of leaves must have been contingent on availability. But over time, through trial and error, cooks learnt to identify leaves that were not merely a protective casing but also added flavour and sometimes medicinal properties to the food.

In India, as is in most tropical countries where banana trees abound, the large, waxy and versatile leaves are used prolifically to wrap and cook food in and eat on. Think Parsi Patrani Machhi, Kerala’s spicy porichathus and Gujarati panki (pancakes steamed between banana leaves). But it’s not the only leaf used in the country to cook food in. From sal to turmeric to rare local varieties steeped in medicinal properties, India uses a wide variety of leaves to cook food in.

Cooking in a pit. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Cooking in a pit. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

Medieval Indian texts refer to a few rather sophisticated recipes for food that’s cooked after being encased in leaves. The Ni’matnama, a fascinating, albeit quirky, book of recipes put together by Ghiyath Shah, Sultan of Malwa, and his son Nasir Shah in the 15th century, archives recipes for kufta, or meatballs, folded in lime leaves and added to a broth. Other variations of the dish call for sour-orange leaves or even betel leaves. In another recipe, minced meat is spiced with cumin, fenugreek, cardamoms, cloves, camphor and musk, stuffed in screw pine leaves or in a basket made with sour orange leaves, cooked, and finally eaten with vinegar or lime juice. The Supashastra, which documents culinary traditions in medieval Karnataka, mentions a recipe for bamboo shoots ground into a paste with ginger, onion and grated coconut, stuffed in betel leaves and steamed.

There is also Rajasthan’s legendary khad (pit) cooking, which was, at one time, extremely popular with the region’s royal hunting parties. The day’s hunt would be laced with spices, swaddled in leaves and cooked in a sealed pit heated with hot embers. The royal family of Mewar boasts an interesting recipe for Khad Kokara, in which the chicken is cloaked specifically in Khakhra (flame of the forest) leaves and roasted in a pit.

Kancheepuram idli. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Kancheepuram idli. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

Another iconic recipe – one that, some claim, goes back centuries – is a unique idli that’s a part of the naivedyam to Hindu deity Varadaraja Perumal at the Varadaraja Perumal Temple in Kanchipuram. The idli batter, laced with dried ginger, cumin, black pepper, asafoetida and curry leaves, is allowed to ferment over several hours. It is then filled into foot-long, cylindrical cane baskets called kudalai that are lined with stitched-together dried mantharai leaves, and steamed in hefty brass steamers. The result is soft and fluffy, delicately-spiced and fragrant idlis, which get their unique accent from the mantharai leaves. “The mantharai leaves impart a mild, woody fragrance to the idli which mingles with the spices to yield a unique flavour,” said food chronicler and TV presenter Rakesh Raghunathan, who documents traditional food on his blog Puliyogare Travels.

In some parts of Karnataka, idli batter is cooked in moulds made of fragrant screw pine leaves, locally known as kedige. The dish is called Moode. The screw pine leaves exude a subtle, grassy aroma with floral notes that seeps into the moist, crumbly idlis, which are best savoured with a splash of hot ghee. Idlis steamed in pouches made with jackfruit leaves, known as Khotte or Kotte Kadubu, is a Karavali festive favourite. The jackfruit leaves, rich in antioxidants, are also used in Bengal for a special pitha, or dumpling, made with the pulp of the Palmyra palm, which is steamed in cones made out of the leaves. On her blog Ruchik Randhap, Dubai-based blogger Shireen Sequeira shares a recipe for sweet rice dumplings that are stuffed with coconut and sesame, and steamed in jackfruit leaves.

For Sequeira, summers at home in Mangalore meant feasting on ponsache patholi – sweet, steamed cakes made with ripe jackfruit, jaggery and ground rice – prepared in her mother’s kitchen. “My mother used to steam the cakes wrapped in tender teak leaves, and usually I would be sent to pluck the leaves from our neighbour’s tree,” said Sequeira. In Kerala, a similar jackfruit dumpling, flavoured with a hint of cumin, comes steamed in fresh Edana or malabathrum leaves.

Enduri pitha. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Enduri pitha. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

That’s not all. Across the South, a mind-boggling variety of sweet and savoury dumplings are steamed in moulds made with leaves like sugar palm leaves and leaves of the Indian tulip tree. “During Attukal Pongala celebrations at the Attukal Bhagavathi Amman temple in Kerala, where thousands of women gather to worship the goddess, an offering of Therali kozhukattai is a must,” said Raghunathan. A doughy batter, made with rice flour, jaggery, banana and a hint of cardamom, is rolled up in therali leaves and steamed. “Therali leaves are the fresh green leaves of the cinnamon tree,” said Raghunathan. “They impart a refreshing citrusy flavour to the sweet dumplings.” An equally intriguing recipe from Gujarat is the damni dhokla. In this, the dhokla, which comes from a complex batter made with rice, a mix of lentils, millet and black gram, is spiced and steamed in almond or banyan leaves.

During monsoons, when turmeric leaves grow in abundance, Konkani homes often feast on patholi – sweet rice dumplings stuffed with coconut and jaggery and steamed in turmeric leaves. The turmeric leaves release their heady aroma that seeps into the patholi, giving them a delicious, floral undertone. Turmeric leaves are in fact used widely across the country. Take, for instance, Odisha’s iconic Enduri pitha that appears everywhere – from Oriya folktales to Lord Jagannatha’s breakfast platter. Rice and urad dal batter is layered with cardamom-scented sweetened coconut on turmeric leaves, sealed and steamed, traditionally in clay pots. “The Enduri is a must on Prathamashtami, an autumnal celebration honouring the first-born child,” said Mumbai-based home-chef Sweta Mohanty. “Typically, the sweet Enduri is paired with spicy Oriya-style mutton curry or dalma, a lentil and vegetable dish.”

In Manipur, Paknam or savoury cakes made with anything from chickpea flour and chives to banana blossom or fish, typically flavoured with ngari (fermented fish), packed into turmeric leaf parcels and steamed, are popular as street food. “In Assam, we use turmeric leaves to wrap and cook fish in,” said chef Kashmiri Barkakati Nath. At her grandmother’s home, small anchovy-like fish, locally called Moamas, would be marinated with a little ginger, some green chilies, salt and a splash of mustard oil, wrapped in turmeric leaves, and thrown into the hearth to roast unhurried.

Chenna poda. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Chenna poda. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

Besides, rice is often steamed in different kinds of indigenous leaves like the koupat or the anti-bacterial Alpinia leaves in the North East. It also makes an appearance on award-winning chef Amninder Sandhu’s sophisticated menu at Arth in Mumbai. Sandhu serves her Jasmine rice packed in fragrant Alpinia leaves with Deomali, which is mutton smoked in bamboo on charcoal. The result is a fragrant feast.

Between January and May, when val beans are harvested in Maharashtra, many rural communities organise popti parties. The festivities pivot on a curious one-pot dish. Val beans, boiled eggs, seasonal vegetables like potatoes and brinjal, and meat marinated with spices are packed into a clay pot, which is lined with the medicinal Bhambrut leaves. The pot is then sealed and upended in a shallow pit with a fire built on it.

Leaf wraps have other uses too. In Mizoram, bekang is made out of soybean that is soaked in water and boiled until soft, before being swathed in fresh leaves of nuhlhan and hnathial. It is then placed in bamboo baskets and left in a warm place to ferment over three days. Bekang is used to make spicy curries or eaten on its own. There’s also Singauri, an iconic Kumaoni sweetmeat. It is made with khoya and coconut and comes bundled in tender Maalu leaves, which are shaped into cones. The leaves grow in abundance on the slopes of Uttarakhand. The maalu leaves act as a vessel for the sweets, while imparting what many claim is a subtle, camphor-like scent.

Patrani macchi. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Patrani macchi. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

In Bengal, the best-known leaf-wrapped dish is perhaps the paturi – mustard-laced fish steamed in banana leaves, which give the dish a mild, woody finish. Other leaves, like those of a bottle gourd or pumpkin, are also used. Such is the popularity of the paturi that it recently made a flaming hot appearance on celebrity chef Gaggan Anand’s exclusive and exorbitant pop-up menus served up at select locations across India.

Leaves are used extensively to cook seafood in Bengal. Mustard-laced hilsa, steamed in pumpkin leaves, and prawns, steamed in bottle-gourd leaf parcels, are coveted delicacies. A rather intriguing recipe from erstwhile East Bengal has fermented fish enclosed in pumpkin or ash gourd leaves, dipped in a thin chickpea batter and deep fried until crisp. Paturi’s Oriya cousin is the Patra Pora, which literally means seared in leaves. “We prefer edible leaves like pumpkin leaves or arbi leaves to wrap fish or prawns in,” said Mohanty. “Traditionally, these would be roasted in a charcoal-fuelled hearth. Nowadays we steam or pan-fry the leafy parcels.”

Therali kozhukattai. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.
Therali kozhukattai. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian.

In Odisha, the abundant sal leaves are used to wrap and roast food in. In fact, Chhena poda, easily the state’s best known sweetmeat, is baked in sal leaves, which give the cardamom-scented cottage cheese cake a distinct aroma. In Madhya Pradesh, a flatbread called paniya is cooked while being pressed between aak ka pasta or leaves of the crown flower tree, or even khakhra leaves.

What’s interesting is how a rustic culinary practice has found a place everywhere from traditional kitchens around India to sophisticated gourmet menus, from royal recipe archives to the catching the fancy of ingenious chefs. As culinary writer Aralyn Beaumont writes in her essay Leaves Make things Steamy, “Cooking in leaves is one of humanity’s simplest and most elegant culinary ideas. Its ubiquity unites us. The myriad ways we adapt the same basic principle is what makes food interesting.”