Say the words ‘ banana leaf’, ‘coconut’, ‘rice’, ‘papad’, ‘aavakaai ‘(dried mango pickle), and the first thing that comes to any Indian’s mind is – a festive South Indian wedding banquet.
Just as not all South India weddings are the same, not all South Indian wedding meals are the same. Delicacies served in a meal vary drastically from coast to coast. One of the seemingly simple but oft ignored meal is the traditional and homely Andhra vegetarian wedding meal
Before one sits down to a meal at an Andhra wedding, one must keep in mind the various protocols, which may seem strange at first. For one, in Andhra, we believe that one shouldn’t ask for salt while eating, so a spoonful of salt is the first item that is served. Also, it is imperative that everybody starts their meal only after rice with ghee is served – it is considered impolite and childish to start before that. It is also important to remember that the servers serve at the speed of a super fast train, and mutter the names of the dishes being served.
The next item on the banana leaf is the pickle. Andhra is known for its pickles, and it isn’t uncommon to see cut mango pieces laid to dry on terraces in summers. Generally mango pickle, made by marinating dried mango pieces in oil, spices and sesame seeds, is served at weddings. This pickle, or aavakaaya, goes best with fine sona masuri rice topped with oil or ghee.
Although not opulent like its northern and western counterparts, the Andhra wedding meal is humble, even healthy, and sometimes it is the simply cooked food that warms the stomach & touches the heart
A medu vada or pulihora, rice prepared with tamarind, turmeric and groundnuts is served along with a sweet, generally an Andhra delicacy called boorelu. Made from deep fried balls of jaggery and dal dipped in rice flour, boorelu are prepared in every Andhra household during major festivals, and are best enjoyed with a spoonful of hot ghee.
The main course begins with a dal, either one made from bitter gongura (ambaadi) dal or raw mango dal, both Andhra specialities. Dal, being the most important item in an Andhra vegetarian wedding ,is placed on the right hand side of the leaf. It is also the first dish to be mixed with rice.
The compulsory curries (koora in Telugu) for every Andhra wedding come next. One koora is made of raw jackfruit and the other is one made of elephant-foot yam and Malabar spinach. This curry, called Kanda- bachali (kanda = elephant-foot yam, bachali = Malabar spinach) is not only delicious, but is also extremely healthy –Malabar spinach being a good source of iron & elephant-foot yam being rich in Vitamin B6. The raw jackfruit curry is a low fat, slightly pungent smelling curry which is a powerhouse of vitamins A and C. The specialty of both these curries is that they are infused with mustard oil, an oil that not many associate with a southern state like Andhra.
A spoon of freshly ground chutney, or pachchadi is dabbed onto the leaf. The type of pachchadi varies depending on various factors – generally it is a mango-coconut or a tamarind chutney, but if a vada is served, it is a sweet-sour ginger chutney. These pachchadis are so delectable that at times it becomes impossible to resist licking them off the leaf, disregarding all protocols!
Piping hot, well-cooked rice finally makes its way onto the leaf. There is something magical about hot rice on a banana leaf – the banana leaf seems to infuse a certain flavour into the plain rice
After all delicacies are served one makes an offering to Gods in a thanksgiving gesture. This is also called Naivedyam.
Tangy tamarind chaaru (rasam) garnished with grated coconut, coriander & curry leaves helps breakdown the bitterness of the gongura leaves in the dal and the spices in the pachchadi & curry. It also aids in cleansing the palate, and helps digestion.
The servers kindly oblige whenever one asks for rice, serving at least a huge ladle-full of rice in one shot. Liquid gold in the form of sambar makes its way into the fort of rice in the banana leaf – this an effective way to ensure that the sambar doesn’t pour out of the banana leaf onto the table, or even worse, into the next person’s leaf! Andhra sambar is quite similar to the general sambar that one has in south Indian restaurants, except that homemade sambar is literally a mishmash of all vegetables in tamarind stock and spices. Unusual vegetables like brinjal, drumsticks and even okra blend in with the usual ones like onions and lauki, and provide a distinctive taste to the sambar. Crispy fried papads adds some crunch to the soft rice, and at times a spoonful of sambar rice on a papad can give tough competition to pani puri!
After a hot meal, it’s time to cool down the body with majjiga (curd) and rice. Majjiga is less of curd, and more of buttermilk, sans salt. It is now scientifically proven that curd with the consistency of buttermilk is more healthier than yogurt-like curd. One of the traditional ways to have majjiga with rice is to mix aavakaaya or curry with the rice. It is also not unusual to have servers pouring the majjiga into glasses as well as in the rice. No Andhra meal is considered complete without a hearty portion of majjiga rice.
It is etiquette of an Andhra wedding banquet to wait for everybody to finish their meal before getting up.
Every wedding meal is an experience in itself, from the rich Rajasthani wedding meal with its ghee-rich dishes such as halwa , to the mildly sweet Gujarati wedding meal with its moong dal ki kadhi and the Bengali wedding meal with its fried fish. Although not opulent like its northern and western counterparts, the Andhra wedding meal is humble, even healthy, and sometimes it is the simply cooked food that warms the stomach & touches the heart .
The author, Mrinalini Krothapalli, is a Journalist and food enthusiast.