How to Cook With Banana Leaves

Kerala meal on banana leaf.

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Banana leaves are beautiful, fun to use, and easy to cook with. They serve many purposes in Asian, Caribbean, and Hispanic cuisines, from adding flavor to cooking foods inside them to simply being used as a colorful setting for serving plates and party platters at a dinner party.

Our guide to banana leaves will help you find the perfect ones to use and teach you how to cook with them, how to decorate your platters with them, and how to store extra banana leaves.

tips for using banana leaves in cooking
Illustration: Chelsea Damraksa. © The Spruce, 2019

Buying Banana Leaves

Banana leaves are very inexpensive to buy. They cost a few dollars for a large pack. Buy banana leaves fresh or frozen in large, flat plastic bags at your local Asian supermarket. Check the freezer if you can't find them on the shelf or in the produce section, but if they're fresh look for a vibrant deep green color, smooth edges, and no perforations on the leaves.

Cooking with Banana Leaves

Banana leaves can be used for baking anything "wrapped" in the same way you would use tin foil or parchment paper. Note that banana leaves are porous (unlike tin foil), so some of the liquid or juices from your food may seep through. Therefore, it's a good idea to place your banana leaf "packets" in a glass casserole dish or a tray that has sides on it. That way the juices won't drop to the bottom of your oven. The traditional Puerto Rican pasteles is an example of a recipe using banans leaves as a wrap, but other similar tamales throughout Latin America use these leaves as containers for grains, beans, meat, and vegetables.

Besides boiling or baking in them, you can use the leaf as a "mat" for barbecuing fragile fillets of fish, smaller shrimp, or vegetables that could fall through the grill. Simply lay a piece of banana leaf on your grill and cook your food items on top of it as you would with tin foil. The banana leaf will turn bright green at first, then brown as you cook. It will give a nice pleasant smoky flavor to your food.

When steaming with bananas leaves, place them on the steamer basket, and place the food on top. As they're porous, the steam can penetrate the food. Alternatively, tightly wrap the food in the leaves and place the pouches in the steamer.

Serving with Banana Leaves

Banana leaf also makes a beautiful "placemat" or "table cloth" on which to serve dishes. Before placing any food on a banana leaf or arranging some on the table, rinse well with hot water and pat dry. They are excellent platters for appetizers or finger foods. By using skewers, toothpicks, or staples, make banana leaf boats or bowls to serve salads, rice, fish, or other dishes that don't have a lot of liquid in them. Many online tutorials show how this trick can be done. Alternatively, cut a banana leaf to line a platter, serving plate, or bowl.

Storing Banana Leaves

Because the leaves are sold in large packs, it's common to have leftovers that you won't use immediately. To keep them fresh for another occasion, freeze them wrapped in plastic wrap, or inside of a tight plastic bag secured with elastics. Banana leaves only require about 30 minutes to thaw, so this is a convenient way to keep them fresh. If using within a week from purchase, store them in the fridge, wrapped in plastic.

For Best Results

Here are some suggestions to successfully use your banana leaves:

  • Use kitchen scissors to cut the banana leaves to the size you need.
  • Use large leaves for baking or wrapping. Place enough filling for one serving in the center of the leaf, then fold like a handkerchief to make a square packet.
  • Secure banana leaf "packets" with toothpicks inserted and woven through the leaf. Or simply place the packet "seam-side" down to keep it from opening.

Easy Curried Meats

Here's a delicious and simple recipe for baked seafood, chicken, or meat in banana leaves:

  • Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  • Mix the curry paste of your preference with sliced chicken, beef, fish, or shrimp. Marinate for 20 minutes in the fridge.
  • Place a portion of the protein in the leaf, and add the veggies of your choice (sliced carrots, broccolini, cauliflower, peppers, onions).
  • Wrap the pouch in a square and secure the packet with toothpicks, or simply place the packet "seam-side" down to keep it from opening while baking.
  • Place the packets in a baking tray and place in the oven to bake. This is similar to cooking en papillote, so cooking times vary depending on the serving size and protein.
  • Serve each portion on the leaf, with steamed rice on the side.