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Cooking with Banana Leaves
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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?
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.
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.
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.