Nothing says spring to the Tamil community of southern India immigrants like a celebration centered on food. So they gathered on a recent Sunday at the Eisenhower Community Center in Hopkins in a joyful — and colorful — feast that brought family, friends and generations together over a not-so-simple meal.
Banana leaves and rice are the backbone of such a feast. The banana leaf serves as both place setting and plate for each guest. And not just any old banana leaf, but a fresh one. All told, hundreds of those leaves arrived from Florida without a sign of jet lag from an overnight flight, soon to be rinsed, over and over again, by a crew of patient volunteers.
“We were very glad when we saw those leaves,” said Priya Mani of St. Paul, who is head of the Tamil School in Woodbury and Hopkins, where children learn the language of their Indian heritage. “Or we would have had to eat on paper.”
Then there was the rice, 15 pounds of a mild-flavored sona masoof variety from India, where the guests had come from, some more recently than others.
And that’s where the predictable nature of this meal ended because it was a gathering that highlighted the dishes of hometowns and individual families who volunteered to cook.
The spring feast was a first for the Minnesota Tamil Sangam, an association of 600 members that represents the 7,000 immigrants in Minnesota who speak the Tamilian language. The Indian community in general is the second-largest foreign-born population in Minnesota.
For two hours each week during the school year, 175 children attend one of eight levels of lessons in the group’s Saturday schools. “Every state in India speaks a separate language,” said Mani. “Our state [Tamilnadu] is the Texas of India.” More than 90 million people worldwide speak Tamil.
On this day, though, they spoke the universal language of excitement as children flitted from one table to the next, chattering, the young girls tying jasmine flowers in their hair, before settling down with parents and grandparents at the meal before them.
The community center was awash in a sea of banana leaves bobbing atop bright yellow tablecloths, transforming what are usually two lunchrooms into a sea of spring colors, as more than 100 volunteers made the meal possible for 375 guests, in two seatings.
“Spring is the time of festivals in India, and many of us miss our families,” said Mani. “We wanted to bring everyone together to have a feeling of connection.
“What’s to bind people together if not food?”
The end result was something akin to a wedding feast back in India. “This really transported everyone back to India,” said Mani, who was attired in the traditional sari, a 6-foot wrap of colorful silk.
Siva Mariyapan, of Eden Prairie, a founding member of the association, noted that these festivals, in India, are very sustainable-food models with every part of the meals’ vegetables or grains used. In the rural community where he was from, once the eating was over, the banana leaves were fed to cows. Here they would be composted.
He had seen big feasts before, of course. But this one had him surprised, with its more than two dozen items. “Only in aristocratic families would this happen, or in a very big city,” he said.
Volunteers carefully placed the 26 items in specific spots on the banana leaf, the more incidental dishes — pickles and sweets — on the left, the rice center-front, from where other dishes would be mixed in by hand. As was traditional, no utensils were used by the diners. Instead, food was scooped up by the fingers on the right hand, cupped together, with the thumb directing the food in an efficient way that even a newcomer could manage. Liquids were served in plastic cups, to either be sipped or added to the rice.
So what was on the banana leaf? A feast, of course. Three dals (legume-based dishes), mango pickles and chutney, a fenugreek salad, curry, bitter guard chips, millet cakes, a fried dough called appalam (also known as papadum in other parts of India), a buttermilk drink with coriander and mustard, a cucumber raita with carrots, and the proverbial much more. All of them reflected a part of the six specific tastes of Tamil food, which incorporated a lot of spice: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. At the close of the meal, the banana leaf is folded over to cover any remnants.
And then it was time for the second seating. More banana leaves, more rice. Spring had arrived for the Tamils.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste