There’s just one place where you can get genuine South Indian food served in the traditional way, on a banana leaf. That place is Southern Spice in Lawndale.
On weekends, the banana leaf meal replaces the weekday lunch buffet. It’s authentic right down to the stainless steel serving trays and food containers brought from India.
You don’t get a plate with a piece of banana leaf and some food on top. Instead, servers come to the table and spoon dish after dish onto large, leaf-lined trays, returning with refills. The meal proceeds at a leisurely pace as new dishes come from the kitchen.
There’s so much food — at least two dozen items — that some of it has to be served on the side, such as dosas, their accompaniments and dessert.
This is why Indians like banana leaf meals — they get a much greater variety than if they had to order from the menu, says Southern Spice owner Sakthivel Venkatesan. Venkatesan and head chef Vadivel Perumal are from Chennai in the South Indian state Tamil Nadu.
The restaurant opened officially May 1, but the banana leaf lunches started in April. At that time, the restaurant had another name, and Venkatesan was fine-tuning the operation before reopening as Southern Spice.
On a recent Saturday, the leaf was covered with mutton (goat) biryani, chicken curry, fish curry, chicken pepper fry, lemon rice, a dry plantain dish, a spoonful of ridge gourd, a lentil fritter called vada, yogurt raita, mango pickle, a fried chili, and a banana and wedge of firm mango for the end of the meal. A little mound of idli podi, a powder made from lentils and spices, was on the leaf to eat with white rice and ghee.
Servers brought crisp thin lentil papads and dosas, the latter ringed with their traditional side dishes, which are the peppery soup rasam, the vegetable and lentil stew sambar, and tomato and coconut chutneys.
Another bowl held dark tamarind gravy that contained tiny black manathakkali berries (also known as black nightshade, wonder berries or sun berries and said to be medicinal). Another held yellow dal with spinach. Also on hand were white rice and plain yogurt.
South Indians make combinations of such dishes. Venkatesan advised eating the yellow dal over rice along with ghee poured on by a server. The raita is eaten with biryani.
The dessert was semiya payasam — or roasted fine noodles in sweetened milk with cardamom and raisins. Venkatesan suggested dipping the spicy lentil vada into this, which sounded odd but was strangely pleasing.
The beverages were water and a steel tumbler of what Indians call buttermilk — diluted yogurt flavored with ginger, cumin, chiles and cilantro.
The menu changes slightly each day. There is always biryani, but it might be made with chicken another time. And the curries, vada and dry chicken dish might change too. There’s also a vegetarian banana leaf meal.
To keep the food as authentic as in South India, mutton biryani is made with a type of rice called kala jeera. Basmati is reserved for chicken biryani. For plain white rice the restaurant uses sona masoori, a medium grain rice grown in the south.
The correct way to eat is with the fingers of the right hand. Indians are adept at this, but others can eat with a large spoon and fork.
The five South Indian states are Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In the south, banana leaf meals appear at weddings and other festivities, in ashrams and in homes. It’s traditional to eat sitting on the floor, but table service is popular too, as at Southern Spice.
Hate to wash dishes? In southern India, the banana leaf is the ideal solution, a readily available organic plate. No cutlery is needed, because the food is eaten with the hands. And there’s no waste. The used leaves can be given to livestock.
And that’s not all. The leaf releases aromatics as hot food is placed on it, enhancing flavor. It’s a clean and healthy way to eat and promotes digestion, Venkatesan said. On top of this, the parade of banana leaf dishes at Southern Spice provides an excellent introduction to South Indian cuisine.
Southern Spice Indian Restaurant, 15651 Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale; (310) 675-1100, southernspicela.com