Around the world, wherever bananas grow, cooks have devised ways to use the giant leaves, wrapping them around foods both savory and sweet. A parcel made from banana leaves seals in moisture and flavor and infuses the contents with a subtle, grassy aroma. From Latin American to Asian dishes, here are 10 clever and beautiful ways to cook with the versatile leaves.
• 1. Steamed fish – A banana leaf makes a fragrant and convenient fish-steaming packet. Wrap the leaf around any kind of firm-fleshed fish (sustainable, of course!) together with seasonings like fresh herbs, garlic, ginger, or curry paste. See this post for some tips.
• 2. Grilled fish (and other foods) – According to Jaden of Steamy Kitchen, there are two advantages to grilling a fish on top of a banana leaf: first, it "prevents the fragile fish from sticking to the grill grates" and second, it "adds a mellow smoky, sweet flavor to the fish." Get her recipe: Grilled Whole Fish on Banana Leaf. This cooking method can be used for shrimp or vegetables, too.
• 3. Savory custards – Throughout Southeast Asia, cooks make banana leaf "boats" to steam mixtures of meat, spices, coconut milk, and eggs. The Sun-Sentinel has a recipe for Cambodian-Style Amok Fish (adaptable for chicken or tofu) and good step-by-step photos for folding the boat. Meanwhile, Nyonya Food shares a Malaysian version of this dish called Otak-Otak.
• 4. Tamales – In tropical regions of Mexico and Central America, tamales are wrapped in banana leaves, which imparts a different flavor than corn husks. Check out Saveur's recipe for Guatemalan Tamales with Ancho Chile Sauce or Simply Recipes' Vegetarian Banana Leaf Tamales.
• 5. Pasteles – Similar to tamales, Latin American pasteles are frequently enclosed in banana leaves. Hector Rodriguez has a recipe for the Puerto Rican version of Pasteles, made with green bananas and yautía root (similar to taro), along with a step-by-step photographic guide to assembling and wrapping them.
• 6. Cochinita pibil – Cochinita pibil is a Mexican dish traditionally consisting of a whole suckling pig roasted in a banana leaf. For a recipe that's more doable at home, see Andrea Myers's Slow-Cooked Achiote-Marinated Pork (Cochinita Pibil).
• 7. Idlis – Varada of Aayi's Recipes shares a riff on hittu/khottek/kadubu, an Indian dish traditionally made from rice and urad dal (black lentil) batter steamed in baskets of jackfruit leaves. This banana leaf version is easier to assemble.
• 8. Bibingka – Bibingka, a Filipino coconut cake, is traditionally baked in a pot lined with banana leaves. Panlasang Pinoy's recipe shows how to adapt this for a cake pan, while Jun-Blog's version uses ramekins. We're looking forward to trying one of these methods next time we make our own binbingka recipe.
• 9. Sticky rice – In Southeast Asia, sticky rice is wrapped and steamed inside banana leaves for a sweet or savory treat. For two examples, check out Thai & Lao Food's recipe for Khao Dome (Coconut Sticky Rice in Banana Leaves) and The Global Gourmet's recipe for Indonesian Lemper Ayam (Sticky Rice and Spiced Chicken
in Banana Leaf).
• 10. Presentation – Fresh, green banana leaves can be used as plates, serving containers, and table decor. Banana leaf boats would make pretty bowls for steamed rice, salads, desserts and more. Another idea is to fold the leaves into cones to fill with noodles or other foods.
Look for banana leaves at Asian and Latin American markets. If fresh ones aren't available, check the frozen food section. Online, they can be found at Grocery Thai.
Related: Ingredient Spotlight: Banana Blossom
(Images: Flickr member bigberto licensed under Creative Commons, Flickr member swanksalot licensed under Creative Commons, Flickr member harryalverson licensed under Creative Commons, Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel, Flickr member jerine licensed under Creative Commons)