Banana leaves are the leaves of banana plant. They have various functions, such as for decoration, as in numerous Hindu and Buddhist ceremonies; for wrapping; for cooking, as in Thai cooking; and as place mats or in serving food, as in countries such as India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Banana Leaf usage in cuisine
Banana leaves used in cuisine are generally large, flexible, and waterproof. When cooking food with or serving or wrapping food with banana leaves, they may confer an aroma to the food leaves; steaming with banana leaves imparts a subtle sweet flavour to the dish.
The leaves contain the juices, protect food from burning and add a subtle flavour. In Tamil Nadu (India) leaves are fully dried and used as packing material for food stuffs and also making cups to hold liquid foods. The dried leaves are called ‘Vaazhai-ch- charugu’ (வாழைச் சருகு) in Tamil. Some South Indian, Filipino and Khmer recipes use banana leaves as a wrapper for frying. The leaves are later removed to retain flavour. In Vietnamese cuisine, banana leaves are used to wrap foods such as cha-lua. Banana leaves are large, flexible, and waterproof.
In Indian and Filipino cuisine
South Indian and some Filipino food (introduced to the Philippines by Hindu merchants) are usually served on a banana leaf. Especially in the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala in every occasion the food must be served in a banana leaf and as a part of the food a banana is served. In the Philippines, a common utilisation of banana leaves in cuisine is in the preparation of the dessert known as suman, which is a glutinous rice pastry more commonly wrapped in palm leaves.
In Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean cuisine
In Indonesian cuisine, banana leaf is employed in cooking method called pepes and botok; the banana leaf packages containing food ingredients and spices are cooked on steam, in boiled water or grilled on charcoal. Banana leaf also used to wrap several kinds of snacks kue (delicacies), such as kue pisang and otak-otak, also to wrap sticky pressed rice delicacies such as lemper and lontong. Banana leaf is also used as a coned plate called “pincuk”, usually to serve rujaktumbuk, pecelor satay. The cleaned banana leaf is often used as a plate mat; cut banana leaf sheet placed upon rattan, bamboo or clay plates to serve food upon it.
In Malaysia and Singapore, banana leaves are used to wrap certain kuih. Malay food such as Nasi Lemak are also commonly wrapped with banana leaves before being wrapped with newspaper as banana leaves add fragrance to the rice.
In Caribbean and Mexican cuisine
In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, banana leaves and parchment paper form the wrapper for pasteles (similar to tamales). Ground green bananas stuffed with meat are packed inside and then boiled with the banana leaf imparting extra flavour and aroma.
Mexican, and more specifically Oaxacan tamales and a local variety of lamb meat, or barbacoa tacos are often steamed in banana leaves. Banana leaves are used for wrapping pork in the traditional Yucatán dish Cochinita pibil. The Hawaiian imu is often lined with banana leaves.
Buying, Storing, and Cooking with Banana Leaves
Banana Leaves are used as a kind of wrap in Asian cooking (instead of tin foil). Banana leaves not only look beautiful, but also lend a subtle aroma and taste when foods are cooked inside them.
Banana leaves can be used for barbecuing, baking, or steaming foods. While functioning as a wrapping material, they also lend a hint of flavour to your food that is very pleasant (unlike tin foil or parchment paper)!
Banana leaf also makes a beautiful background on which to serve various Asian dishes – excellent for party platters or finger foods.
Buying Banana Leaves
Buy banana leaves fresh or frozen in large, flat plastic bags at your local Asian supermarket (check the freezer if you can’t find them on the shelf or in the produce section).
Storing Banana Leaves
To keep extra leaves for use later, simply wrap up in plastic (a plastic bag will do, secured with elastic), and keep in the freezer.
Cooking with Banana Leaves
Banana leaves can be used for baking anything “wrapped” – in the same way you would use tin foil or parchment paper. However, note that banana leaves are porous (unlike tin foil), so some of the “sauce” or juices from your food item may seep through. It’s therefore a good idea to place your banana leaf “packets” in a glass casserole dish, or a tray that has “sides” on it, so that the juices don’t drip to the bottom of your oven.
Banana Leaves for Grilling/Barbecuing
You can also use banana leaf as a kind of “mat” for barbecuing fragile fillets of fish, smaller shrimp, or vegetables that have a danger of falling through the grill. Simply lay a piece of banana leaf on your grill, then cook your food items on top of it (as you would with tin foil). The banana leaf will turn bright green at first, then brown as you cook. It will give a nice hint of flavour to your food that is very pleasant.
Banana Leaves for Serving
Banana leaf also makes a beautiful background on which to serve various Asian dishes – excellent for party platters or finger foods. They can also be made into Banana Leaf Boats – great for serving salads, rice, fish, and other dishes. Or, simply cut a banana leaf (rinse well with hot water and pat dry) and use it to line a platter, serving plate or bowl. Banana leaf dresses up the dish, adding an exotic touch to any Thai or Asian recipe.
Eating on Banana Leaf
This is perhaps the “funnest” part of using banana leaves in cooking – eating off of them! Any dish that has been cooked in banana leaf can also be served in/on it – in fact, this makes the dish even more beautiful to serve and to eat. It also makes for a wonderful conversation-starter at dinner parties! For an example of a good recipe to do this, check out Coconut Fish Curry Parcels – Amok Trei