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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—A shortage of banana leaves prompted the owner of Kanna Curry House in Malaysia to turn to paper versions, setting off a debate among restaurateurs and enthusiasts about what the leaves mean to Indian cuisine.

Muthu Kumar finds himself caught between his tradition-bound diners, who refuse to abandon banana leaves, which are used as plates, and an increasingly complex and expensive supply chain that sends machete-wielding workers deep into Malaysia's jungles in search of the coveted leaves.

"There is no point in insisting on keeping the tradition when I can't get fresh leaves," said the 25-year-old Mr. Kumar.

As Indian food has grown in popularity in Malaysia, banana leaves have become tougher for restaurant owners like Mr. Kumar to find. Kuala Lumpur and neighboring Selangor state have up to an estimated 700 banana-leaf restaurants, according to Shalini Shanmugam, the owner of four banana plantations. Fresh leaves can be hard to acquire because many banana plantations were cleared for housing.

The Consumers Association of Penang, a consumer-advocacy group, was so peeved with Mr. Kumar that it dragged the nation's health ministry in to rule whether paper banana leaves are sanitary. The health ministry found that there were no health hazards.

But for die-hards like R. Subramaniam, who is in his 70s, fake banana leaves just won't do.

"You either serve me food on a banana leaf or on a plate. For the price I will be charged for a banana leaf rice meal, I certainly will not eat out of paper," he said.

That viewpoint has resulted in Mr. Kumar losing what he estimates to be 5% of his customers over the past year. It also helps explain why his side business of selling paper leaves hasn't taken off. Only seven other Indian restaurants in Malaysia are buying his paper leaves.

The conflict stems from the unique role banana leaves play in Indian cooking. The leaves function as plates for rice with vegetables, curry and pickles. The leaves aren't eaten, but Indian-food purists insist they instill a distinct flavor and fragrance that is integral to the overall dish. One leaf generally can be made into three "plates."

Mr. Kumar's case also highlights a generational rift, with older Indian diners tending to demand real leaves. But younger diners, like Ravinder Singh, a 25-year-old insurance worker, are often more open to the switch.

"It makes no difference if the food is eaten out of a banana leaf or paper leaf because the taste is in the food," said Mr. Ravinder, who is a customer of Mr. Kumar.

Mr. Kumar says he intends to stick with his paper leaves to supply his seven restaurants, which require a total of 5,000 leaves a day. His largest restaurant, which is in the state of Selangor, next to Kuala Lumpur, needs 800 leaves on weekdays and 1,100 leaves on weekends.

When he started to notice the shortage of fresh leaves last year, he said he rejected buying frozen Cambodia banana leaves out of concern over chemical additives. He said he then weighed buying leaves from banana orchards, but didn't feel he could depend on them.

Finally, he turned to artificial leaves from India. He orders 1 million leaves every three to four months, which are sent to him in containers on a ship. It is a huge savings—6 U.S. cents per paper leaf compared with 12 cents for a fresh leaf. And that is before he adds in labor costs for 12 workers at his six restaurants to clean fresh leaves.

Ironically, the soap opera Mr. Kumar unleashed in Malaysia doesn't seem to have played out in India, where restaurants in the south have for years substituted fake leaves for the pricier originals. Still, real banana leaves are preferred in India, with diners wedded to tradition and flavor.

In Malaysia, restaurant owners battle for available banana leaves at plantations, in the wild and even alongside roads, where the hardy plants thrive in the country's wet and hot climate.

Ms. Shanmugam says her four banana plantations can't supply all her customers, now numbering about 200 restaurants. Each weekday, she sends 16 workers into the jungles for 10 hours a day in search of leaves.

"You have to go deep into the jungles to look for banana trees," said Ms. Shalini.

Jeyacanth Govindarath, whose G. R. Kavitha restaurant is about 18 miles from Kuala Lumpur, uses about 180 leaf pieces a day on weekdays and up to 400 pieces on weekends and public holidays. He fills in shortages by sending out his kitchen staff with machetes to chop banana leaves from trees growing along the road and in villages.

But don't expect him to consider paper leaves to save his staff from the heat and mosquito bites.

"Why call it a banana leaf restaurant when in principle it is a paper leaf?"
Oct. 24, 2013 1:52 p.m. ET

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