Banana flowers (aka banana blossoms) are exactly what their name suggests: the blossoms from a banana tree. They're a completely edible delicacy and can be found fresh at roadside stands and farmers markets, wherever bananas are grown, but are especially prevalent in Asia. They're commonly used in salads, curries, and soups.
Distinct flavor: banana
Edible parts: all
What Are Banana Flowers?
Banana flowers, if left on the tree, would blossom into bananas. They grow in groups of flowers called hands and, like bananas, are wonderfully edible. Sometimes they're called banana hearts.
These reddish-purple, teardrop-shaped leaves can weigh in at up to a pound. In order to get to the good stuff on the inside, it requires some work. The most delicate parts, the yellowy-white florets, require removal, cleaning, and soaking in acidulated water in order to mitigate some of the bitterness they possess. The intermediary leaves, which are pale pink in color, are also edible, too, and should be soaked as well.
Put the flowers in a bowl of water and add several tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar (about 1 tablespoon for every 2 cups of water) to help mitigate the bitterness. Soaking also helps avoid browning that can occur once the innermost parts are exposed to the air.
Banana Flowers Vs. Banana Leaves
Banana blossoms and banana leaves are two different things. Banana leaves are heartier, protective, and more widely available. They are thick—even waxy—and a deep dark green. Banana leaves are not so much edible and instead are used in many cuisines to wrap food for gentle cooking (e.g., many Central American cuisines use them to wrap tamales to stream them). Banana flowers are far more delicate, but they're definitely something you can eat.
How to Cook With Banana Flowers
Don't necessarily think of it as adding bananas to a dish or flowers, necessarily, either; it's neither fruity nor flowery per se. Instead, it's more about adding a subtly sweet, floral tropical taste. The darker, tough husks (often magenta in hue) on the outside of the flower need to be stripped away to reveal the tender yellow-green leaves inside. That's the prize. You can use the darker leaves as little serving boats if you like.
The youngest, freshest specimens can be chopped and used in salads. Try it added to spinach salads, with a simple dressing and topped with chopped macadamia nuts. Banana flowers can also be used in soups or sliced and added to stir-fries. Banana flowers, like greens or any other delicate produce, will cook quickly and lose quite a bit of volume in the process. You can also steam them, peel them apart like artichokes, and serve them with dips.
Like bananas themselves, the banana flower leaves will turn brown or black if left to sit exposed to air for any length of time, so don't peel off that outer layer until you're ready to use them.
What Do They Taste Like?
Banana flowers don't so much taste like a banana as like something that will grow into a banana. They have a similar aromatic profile, but it's much more delicate and much less banana-like when still in the blossom form. Some people feel they taste a bit like artichoke leaves; others say the taste calls to mind hearts of palm or bamboo shoots. Regardless of individual tasting notes, generally speaking, the taste is evocative and subtle, similar to the taste relationship between zucchini blossoms and full-grown zucchini. They're soft but offer a little bit of a crunch.
Where to Buy Banana Flowers
In areas where bananas grow, banana flowers are sold at farmers' markets, road stands, and some grocery stores. If you're not in a tropical locale resplendent with banana trees, you may find banana flowers at Asian or Indian food stores or specialty markets; sometimes they're in the produce department, but you may be able to find them canned or in frozen foods section. If you do buy them frozen, they work well in cooked preparations where you want their flavor, but won't defrost well into for use in a salad or otherwise serve raw.
When shopping or otherwise presented with the opportunity to procure some flowers, choose ones that feel firm and whose leaves are tightly packed. Sometimes you may be able to purchase them wrapped in plastic, which helps retain both the color and moisture in the leaves.
If your climate allows, planting your own banana tree is a great way to create a predictable supply of banana flowers—and bananas, too.
These are one of those highly perishable specimens that are best consumed as soon as you purchase them or pick them yourself—especially the former, because you may not know how long they sat at the market before you bought them.
If you aren't going to use the flowers right away, they will remain fresh if stored in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to three days.