KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Cooking with Banana Leaves
Bay Area Bites: culinary rants & raves from bay area foodies and professionals
Previous Posts
Best Supporting Meal
From Lemons, Lemonade
Country Ham 'n All the Fixins
Whole Grains for Everyone
Global Warming & Our Farmers
Pho Ga: Vietnamese Penicillin
Dives I Love: Cordon Bleu
Chocolate Fondue Love
Kylie Kwong Cookbooks
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market Report
 
 
BAB Guidelines

'Bay Area Bites' is part of KQED's Blog Authors Collaborative. Blog contributors and commentators are solely responsible for their content. If you're interested in writing or contributing to a blog on kqed.org, email us with your idea.
 
Monday, February 25, 2008
Cooking with Banana Leaves


Once a month or so, my mother sends me a box from home filled with food. The last one, timed perfectly for lunar new year, included a batch of rice cakes. Before I even saw them, though, I knew there was treasure buried somewhere deep beneath her homemade peanut brittle, gingery mustard pickles from the last greens in her garden and bags of candied coconut used as packing material. The distinctive green-tea aroma of banana leaves had emerged as soon as the packing tape was cut.

Throughout the tropical sun belt, banana leaves appear as easy, inexpensive, natural, sanitary--and most importantly--delicious packaging. From Mexican tamales to Indian wedding feasts, Malaysian lunches to Vietnamese fast food, the leaves provide pliable wrapping, compostable tableware and a lovely flavoring for steamed or simmered specialties. Throughout Southeast Asia, you'll see banana-wrapped foods for sale as street food. Food sealed within their layers and then cooked slowly will keep for days without being refrigerated. Traditional foods for the lunar new year period are often cooked in banana leaves, especially for serving during the first three days when families are supposed to be enjoying each other's company rather than cooking.

For my mom and all my generous, food-loving aunts, banana leaves are perfect for the three-day priority mail period between the Midwest and California.



BUYING BANANA LEAVES

Virtually all Asian and Latino markets with a freezer section will stock banana leaves that have been folded and frozen into large squares. Though more delicate than fresh leaves, they're easy and convenient to use. If you're lucky enough to have a pesticide-free tree somewhere in your neighborhood, you might offer a trade in sweet or savory treats for an armful of fresh leaves. Berkeley Bowl often stocks fresh leaves, and there are also numerous mail-order sources for fresh leaves, such as Florida-based Greenearth.

USING BANANA LEAVES IN YOUR KITCHEN

Here are just a few simple suggestions for experimenting with banana leaves:

Golden Rice
Cook long-grain rice, substituting 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the water or stock with coconut milk. Add a few slices of ginger, a cinnamon stick and a pinch of turmeric. After the rice is cooked, stir gently and then prepare small packets of the rice. Steam for 20 minutes and then serve with curries or grilled fish.

Tamales
Rick Bayless offers a recipe for banana-leaf wrapped Red Chile Pork Tamales at his Frontera website. We're lucky enough to live in an area where tamale dough is available pre-made in Latino markets. Leftover or take-out chicken mole is a most excellent substitute for slow-cooking your own filling. For variety, sprinkle green olives, bell peppers or corn kernels over the filling before enclosing and cooking.

Fish with Red Curry
Small packets are a fun alternative at summer grill parties, while a hot oven is a perfectly decent rainy-weather option for a dramatic yet simple dinner-party dish. Rub sea bass or salmon with a generous amount of prepared Thai red curry paste thinned with a small amount of oil. I prefer using a whole fish and filling its cavity with scallions and lime wedges, but you can easily use steaks or fillets. Wrap a whole fish completely in three layers of banana leaves, alternating the grain of the banana leaf to crisscross from layer to layer for added stability. Individual portions can be wrapped in one large rectangle on a bed of scallions and lime slices. Tie tightly with wet string and then grill over medium high coals or roast at 400 degrees, allowing 10 minutes base time plus 10 minutes for every inch thickness of the banana leaf packets.

Mushrooms with Tomatoes and Ginger
Thinly slice full-flavored mushrooms and toss them with diced tomatoes (drain well if using canned), chopped scallions, grated ginger, cilantro, salt and black pepper. Wrap in individual packets and bake or grill until completely charred on the outside. Serve as a side dish with steamed rice and grilled chicken or pork.

Sweet Rice with Coconut and Peanuts
Cover about 2 cups of sticky rice with 3 inches of water and let soak for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Drain well. In a small bowl, mix together 1 cup each of grated coconut and chopped, roasted peanuts. Stir in a few spoonfuls of brown sugar to taste (omit if using pre-sweetened coconut) and then a healthy sprinkling of salt. At the center of a large square of banana leaf, mound 1/4 cup of sticky rice, layer 1/4 cup of the filling, then finish with 1/4 cup more of sticky rice. Fold the leaf in thirds like a letter, then fold in the two side-flaps to overlap at the center; tie securely with string. Steam for one hour, then let cool completely before serving as mid-morning or afternoon snacks with strong tea.



WORKING WITH BANANA LEAVES

If you're used to Saran wrap or foil, there's a bit of an adjustment to using natural material that's irregularly shaped and varied in texture from package to package, leaf to leaf. But banana leaves are immensely fun to work with, and their flavor is far, far superior to plastic or metal. Like crepes, practice with one or two or three first to get into the groove. Each thin package of banana leaves doesn't look like much, but there's a lot folded up in there. The leaves are inexpensive enough that you can get an extra one for back-up if it's your first time working with them.

• A couple of hours in the fridge or a few minutes submerged in very hot water will thaw out frozen leaves. I usually place the leaves in my empty sink, and then pour boiling water over them to clean and soften them. I keep them in the hot water until just before I need them, wiping a few at a time with a cloth to absorb excess moisture. Always wipe in the direction of the grain to prevent splitting the leaves.

• Soak some toothpicks or kitchen string at the same time. I prefer string for larger parcels of food, since the toothpicks can cause more damage then their convenience is worth. If you forget to soak the string or toothpicks, expect to see them char completely if grilled or roasted. If you're making very small packets, you can use thin strips of the banana leaf itself as ties.

• With a pair of scissors, trim away the hard, center vein of the leaf. Sometimes, I use the hard edges as extra support for larger packages, such as whole fish, but it can cause the leaf to split, so it's best to remove them until you're comfortable working with larger leaves. For appearance sake, you might also want to trim away any yellow streaks.

• To repair and reinforce a split leaf, just place it on top of another leaf with its grain running perpendicular.

• When grilling large items, such as a whole fish, use a cookie sheet and two wide spatulas to transfer the package to the rack, to turn it halfway through the cooking period and to remove it when done cooking.

• For easier and more attractive serving, especially on a buffet table, use shears to snip open the packets.

• Banana leaf packets are perfect for preparing ahead of time and cooking later. They hold up to moist fillings and they're easy to carry to potlucks and parties. Cover with a damp cloth to keep them moist in the fridge. Don't wait more than three days to cook them, though. They're organic material, after all, and will start fermenting if left raw too long. Once cooked, though, they and the food they hold last a surprisingly long time even at room temperature. While we have become spoiled by the apparent safety of refrigerators, much of the world still enjoys prepared snacks wrapped securely and deliciously in banana leaves.

Labels: , ,

 
 

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What perfect timing! I'll be heading out to an Asian/Latino market for some frozen banana leaves for Puerco Pibil. Thanks for the tip on fresh banana leaves available at Berkeley Bowl!

I am confused that your relatives in the Midwest would send you (in SF) fresh banana leaves this time of the year? What am I missing? ;)

2/25/2008 4:01 PM

 
Blogger Thy Tran said...

Sorry about the confusion! My family doesn't send me banana leaves...they send me rice cakes that have been wrapped and steamed INSIDE banana leaves. The rice cakes are in that first photo, on the left. The scent of the leaves is even stronger after cooking, even days later when I opened the box.

2/29/2008 2:07 PM

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Locate CP Restaurants:
Check, Please! Google Map
 
KQED Food Sites
Check, Please! Bay Area
Jacques Pépin Celebrates!
Jacques Pépin:
Fast Food My Way
Jacques Pépin:
The Apprentice
Jacques Pépin:
The Complete Pépin
KQED Wine Club
KQED.org Cooking
Weir Cooking in the City
 
Tasty Food Sites
CHOW
Chowhound SF
Crushpad
CUESA
CulinaryCorps
Eat Local Challenge
Edible San Francisco
Epicurious
eGullet.org
Food Network
Food Talk
Group Recipes
Hungry Magazine
KTEH Food
Leite's Culinaria
Locavores
Mighty Foods
NPR: Food
Om Organics
Serious Eats
SFGate: Food
SFGate: Wine
SF Station: Restaurants
Slow Food SF
Top Chef
Wikimedia Commons: Food & Drink
Yahoo! Food
Yelp: Reviews
 
Tangy Food Blogs
101 Cookbooks
A Full Belly
Accidental Hedonist
agoodfoodblog
An Obsession with Food
Anna's Cool Finds
Becks & Posh
Between Meals
Blogsoop
Bunny Foot
Butter Pig
Cellar Rat
Chez Pim
Chocolate & Zucchini
Confessions of a
Restaurant Whore
Cooking For Engineers
Cooking with Amy
Cucina Testa Rossa
Culinary Muse
Denise's Kitchen
Digesty-SF
Eater SF
Eggbeater
Extramsg.com
Feed & Supply
Food Blog S'cool
Food Musings
Food Porn Watch
Gastronomie
Hedonia
I'm Mad and I Eat
In Praise of Sardines
Jatbar
Knife's Edge
Life Begins at 30
Love and Cooking
MeatHenge
Mental Masala
Moveable Feast
Nosheteria
Organic Day
Passionate Eater
San Francisco Gourmet
SF City Eats
Simply Recipes
Spicetart
The Amateur Gourmet
Tablehopper
The Ethicurean
The Food Section
The Grub Report
The Petite Pig
The Wine Makers Wife
Vin Divine
Vinography
VirgoBlue
Wandering Spoon
Well Fed Network
Word Eater
World on a Plate
Yummy Chow
 
 
   
Search BAB

Eye Candy: Food Photos
BAB on flickr.com
Join Flickr for free and share your photos with the Bay Area Bites and Beyond group pool.
 
Food Books
 
The Moosewood Cookbook
by Mollie Katzen
 
Baking: From My Home to Yours
by Dorie Greenspan
 
Grand Livre de Cuisine: Alain Ducasse's Desserts and Pastries
by Alain Ducasse, Frederic Robertmison
 
The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking and Entertaining
by Cheryl Alters Jamison, Bill Jamison
 
Tasty: Get Great Food on the Table Every Day
by Roy Finamore
 
Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way
by Lorna Sass
 
The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa
by Marcus Samuelsson
 
Michael Mina: The Cookbook
by Michael Mina, Photographer: Karl Petzktle
 
What to Eat
by Marion Nestle
 
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan
 
Essence of Chocolate: Recipes for Baking and Cooking with Fine Chocolate
by John Scharffenberger, Robert Steinberg
 
Romancing the Vine: Life, Love, and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo
by Alan Tardi
 
What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea -- Even Water -- Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers
by Andrew Dornenburg, Karen Page, Michael Sofronski
 
The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners
by Matt Lee, Ted Lee
 
Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own
by Andrew Whitley
 
Coloring the Seasons: A Cook's Guide
by Allegra McEvedy
 
All-new Complete Cooking Light Cookbook
by Anne C. Cain
 
Modern Garde Manger
by Robert B. Garlough
 
The Spice and Herb Bible
by Ian Hemphill, Kate Hemphill
 
The Improvisational Cook
by Sally Schneider
 
Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children
by Ann Cooper, Lisa M. Holmes
 
Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia
by James Oseland
 
My Life in France
by Julia Child, Alex Prud'Homme
 
A Passion for Ice Cream: 95 Recipes for Fabulous Desserts
by Emily Luchett, Sheri Giblin (photographer)
 
Au Pied De Cochon -- The Album
by Martin Picard
 
Memories of Philippine Kitchens
by Amy Besa, Romy Dorotan
 
Simple Chinese Cooking
by Kylie Kwong
 
 
An Invitation to Indian Cooking
by Madhur Jaffrey
 
Hungry Planet
by Peter Menzel, Faith D'Aluisio
 
Sunday Suppers at Lucques : Seasonal Recipes from Market to Table
by Suzanne Goin, Teri Gelber
 
Simple Soirees: Seasonal Menus for Sensational Dinner Parties
by Peggy Knickerbocker, Christopher Hirsheimer (Photographer)
 
The Cook's Book
by Jill Norman
 
Molto Italiano : 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home
by Mario Batali
 
Nobu Now
by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa
 
Cheese : A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best
by Max Mccalman, David Gibbons
 
Bones : Recipes, History, and Lore
by Jennifer McLagan
 
Whiskey : The Definitive World Guide
by Michael Jackson
 
The New American Cooking
by Joan Nathan
 
ChocolateChocolate
by Lisa Yockelson
 
Easy Entertaining: Everything You Need to Know About Having Parties at Home
by Darina Allen
 
Cooking at De Gustibus: Celebrating 25 Years of Culinary Innovation
by Arlene Feltman Sailhac
 
Dough: Simple Contemporary Breads
by Richard Bertinet
 
Chocolate Obsession: Confections and Treats to Create and Savor
by Michael Recchiuti, Fran Gage, Maren Caruso
 
The Food Substitutions Bible: More Than 5,000 Substitutions for Ingredients, Equipment And Techniques
by David Joachim
 
Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook
by Susan Spungen
 
Spices of Life: Simple and Delicious Recipes for Great Health
by Nina Simonds
 
Mangoes & Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent
by Jeffrey Alford, Naomi Duguid
 
Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light
by Mort Rosenblum
 
Vegetable Love: A Book for Cooks
by Barbara Kafka, Christopher Styler
 
A History of Wine in America: From Prohibition to the Present
by Thomas Pinney
 
Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years Of Food And Art
by Tom Gilliland, Miguel Ravago, Virginia B. Wood
 
Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South
by Marcie Cohen Ferris
 
Washoku: Recipes From The Japanese Home Kitchen
by Elizabeth Andoh, Leigh Beisch
 
 
Weir Cooking in the City: More than 125 Recipes and Inspiring Ideas for Relaxed Entertaining
by Joanne Weir
 
Rick Stein's Complete Seafood
by Rick Stein
 
The Great Scandinavian Baking Book
by Beatrice A. Ojakangas
 
Serena, Food & Stories: Feeding Friends Every Hour of the Day
by Serena Bass
 
John Ash: Cooking One on One: Private Lessons in Simple, Contemporary Food from a Master Teacher
by John Ash
 
The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook: Eating Well for Better Health
by Donald Hensrud, M.D., Jennifer Nelson, R.D. & Mayo Clinic Staff
 
Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions
by Fernando and Marlene Divina
 
The Provence Cookbook
by Patricia Wells
 
Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World
by Gil Marks
 
Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World
by Gina Mallet
 
Bouchon
by Thomas Keller
 
A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World
by Maggie Glezer
 
All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking
by Molly Stevens
 
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
by Harold McGee
 
Entertaining: Inspired Menus For Cooking with Family and Friends
by George Dolese
 
The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore
by Grace Young, Alan Richardson
 
Cooking New American: How to Cook the Food You Love to Eat
by Fine Cooking Magazine
 
The Japanese Kitchen: A Book of Essential Ingredients with 200 Authentic Recipes
by Kimiko Barber
 
Arthur Schwartz's New York City Food: An Opinionated History and More Than 100 Legendary Recipes
by Arthur Schwartz
 
Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher
by Joan Reardon
 
Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes
by Jeffrey Hamelman
 
Everyday Dining with Wine
by Andrea Immer
 
 
Copyright © 2005-2008 KQED. All rights reserved.