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Cooking with Banana Leaves

Updated on October 26, 2015
Banana Leaves
Banana Leaves | Source

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Banana leaves, although not edible, have long been a significant ingredient in many cuisines around the world. In Asia, the use of banana leaves in cooking can be dated back for centuries. In Latin America and the Caribbean, food wrapped in banana leaves isn't an uncommon sight. In Hawaii, the tradition of baking meat in an underground oven cannot be complete without layers of banana leaves draped over a pile of hot rocks. Just like the fruits, the leaves of banana plants are very versatile. Back when there was no aluminum foil, parchment paper or sturdy ramekins, those green leaves were what people used to grill, steam, bake and serve their grub in those mentioned parts of the globe. For those who aren't familiar with such culinary practice, the terms "exotic," "old-fashion" or "primitive" may come to mind. To someone who grew up with this gastronomic culture like myself, however, it's just a smart, simple and eco-friendly way to cook. Why eat the fruits and waste the leaves when they can be so conveniently useful?

Sweet Glutinous Rice Being Grilled in Banana Leaves - Bangkok, Thailand
Sweet Glutinous Rice Being Grilled in Banana Leaves - Bangkok, Thailand | Source

Grilling with Banana Leaves

Banana leaves are often used for grilling fish, but some culinary cultures also use them to wrap grilled meat, fruits and even desserts. Like aluminum foil, they prevent food from sticking to the grill and over-browning. At the same time, they also keep the food moist and add a delicate aroma to it. I took the above picture while visiting my home city, Bangkok, last November. It was only seven in the morning, yet the friendly vendor seemed to have already been grilling her rice sweets for quite some time. Those cone-shaped pouches contained sweet glutinous rice stuffed with creamy taro paste. Her shop was an old wheeled cart roofed with a large umbrella. Her grill was a metal bucket filled with sizzling coals. She didn't need to time her cooking or open any banana-leaf pouch to check the readiness of her delicious treats, but did everything from start to finish in autopilot mode. Watching her flip those pouches so methodically, I contently inhaled the scent of seared banana leaves, one of a few aromas I associate with Southeast Asia. And yes, I ended up buying a bunch of those grilled goodies. Delectable rice desserts are always worth the wait.

Hor Mok - Thai Savory Custard (Before Steaming)
Hor Mok - Thai Savory Custard (Before Steaming) | Source
Hor Mok - Ready to be Served
Hor Mok - Ready to be Served | Source
Puerto Rican Pasteles
Puerto Rican Pasteles | Source

Boiling and Steaming with Banana Leaves

Pliable and waterproof, banana leaves are an excellent material for food vessels or wrappers used in boiling and steaming. Puerto Ricans, for example, have long cherished a traditional dish called "pasteles", which is a close cousin to Mexican tamales and might remind many of Italian calzones. Made with masa dough and meat stuffing, pasteles are encased in strips of banana leaf, then boiled in salted water until done and tender. In Thailand, Hor Mok, a savory custard dish steamed in banana-leaf cups, is served at many first-class restaurants as well as no-name street vendors. These leaves may appear more delicate than hefty, but in fact, they can withstand the heat and excessive moisture through the process of steaming just as efficiently as a ramekin.

Filipino Bibingka
Filipino Bibingka | Source

Baking with Banana Leaves

Modern bakers use parchment paper and aluminum foil in order to prevent food from sticking to the bottom of the container as well as to trap moist heat inside the baking packet. The same wonders can be achieved with banana leaves. Bibingka, a famous Filipino dessert, is an example of a traditional dish that utilizes such techniques. The old-school preparation of this dish includes lining small terra cotta bowls with sheets of banana leaf, placing them on hot coals, filling the bowls with a rice and coconut mixture, then topping them with another layer of banana leaf and preheated coals. Once cooked, those dainty bowls of bibingka look not much different from Western cupcakes at all. Nowadays, many Filipino chefs would bake bibingka in an electric or gas oven to save time and labor, yet very few would replace banana-leaf liners with paper cups.

In Hawaii, a lot of people still use banana leaves to cover their "imu pit" or underground oven when preparing traditional dishes for a large party. Oftentimes, banana trunks are put in the imu as well, in order to create and retain more moisture in the pit. Kalua pig, a popular Hawaiian dish slow-roasted with this ancient method, is just as succulent and tender as any five-star pork roast professionally prepared in a modern oven.

Building a Hawaiian Imu Pit


Submit a Comment

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago

    @anglnwu - Thanks, Angeline. I agree it is magical!

    @RTalloni - I'm sure your guests will be impressed, RTalloni.

    @Prasetio - So glad to hear that, Pras. I'd love to try Indonesian food some day.

    @torrilyn - You're very welcome :)

    @Darknlovely - Yep, there are lots and lots of things we can do with banana leaves.

  • Darknlovely3436 profile image

    Annie 4 years ago from NewYork

    it is good for wrapping fish, for roasting.. conkies with consist of cornmeal. lot of idea with banana leaves

  • torrilynn profile image

    torrilynn 4 years ago

    om paramapoonya, i never knew that you could cook with banana leaves and the types of foods they work best with. thanks.

  • prasetio30 profile image

    prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

    I love this hub very much because my mom often use banana leaves for cooking. Indonesia as tropical country has different types of banana. Cooking with banana's leaves gives different taste and it also smell good. My sister, thanks for writing and share with us. Voted up (pressing the buttons, except funny).


  • RTalloni profile image

    RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

    What a neat thing to learn about--thanks! Now I want to learn to use bananas leaves for a special recipe and surprise guests with the technique.

  • anglnwu profile image

    anglnwu 4 years ago

    Anything wrapped in banana leaves instantly turned delicious--it's almost magical. I love sweet glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves and fish baked in them too. Great informational hub and shared.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago

    @CarNoobz - Lucky you! Puerto Rican pasteles are so hard to find here.

    @vespawoolf - Yeah, I think banana leaves are a great alternative to corn husks. I've never had tamales wrapped in banana leaves but I can imagine they probably smell really nice.

    @aurakitchens - Thanks for stopping by and sharing your culture. I'd love to visit India some day.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago

    @Annie Miller - You're very welcome!

    @akirchner - Come back here sometime then. Those palm trees are awaiting you! lol

    @Denise Hnadlon - Ah, bummer. You could try Amazon, but they might make you buy a huge bunch rather than one small bag.

    @Angela Kane - I agree. The more eco-friendly, the better. Thanks for stopping by, Angela.

  • vespawoolf profile image

    vespawoolf 4 years ago from Peru, South America

    Here in Peru, tamales are wrapped in banana leaves and then steamed. They give the tamales a distinctive flavor and aroma. I didn't realize how much they are used worldwide and how handy they are to keep foods from sticking, etc. Thanks!

  • CarNoobz profile image

    CarNoobz 4 years ago from USA

    Ooh...I LOVE those Puerto Rican pasteles. There's a family out here that sells them on the side of the road sometimes. So SO delicious!

  • Angela Kane profile image

    Angela Kane 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

    I have never tried cooking with banana leaves, but have seen it done on TV. I think it is a lot better than using aluminum foil or pots. Great and versatile idea.

  • Denise Handlon profile image

    Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina

    Hi Om, I wish I had an Asian market. I live in a tiny, southern town...heck, the only restaurants we have are Italian, Chinese or fast food. The only markets are: food lion, Lowes, or Piggly Wiggly! I'll keep my eye out when I'm in a larger city. Thanks!

  • akirchner profile image

    Audrey Kirchner 4 years ago from Central Oregon

    Very awesome and makes me miss the palm trees I grew up with in southern California....what a great medium for cooking!

  • Annie Miller profile image

    Annie Miller 4 years ago from Wichita Falls, Texas

    I am so anxious to try cooking with banana leaves now. Thanks, Om for an interesting Hub about a subject I have long been wondering about!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago

    @vibesites - Yes, I agree unwrapping a banana-leaf pouch or eating food out of a banana-leaf bowl really makes an eating experience a little more fun!

    @Goodlady - I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed this hub, Penelope. Thanks so much for your lovely comment, votes and pin!

    @Denise and NCBIer - You guys should be able to find banana leaves at your local Asian supermarket. They're usually in the frozen aisles!

  • NCBIer profile image

    NCBIer 4 years ago

    I am also curious to know where I might find banana leaves. We are always looking for ways to reduce our impact on the environment and this sounds like a fun and very interesting way to do it!

  • Denise Handlon profile image

    Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina

    This is such a timely article for me. I was looking at several recipes and one used banana leaves. I was intrigued, as well as puzzled, as to how I could find banana leaves in my area. Thanks for the wonderful information. I rated it UP/U/I/A and will share.

  • GoodLady profile image

    Penelope Hart 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

    Ohhhh this is sooooh beautiful. I love this hub and just yearn to have any one of those great meals in a banana leaf right now.

    voting, sharing and pinning.

  • vibesites profile image

    vibesites 4 years ago from United States

    I love eating foods encased on banana leaves... They're natural, useful and biodegradable and gives a quite different eating experience. Thanks for sharing. Up, useful and awesome. :)