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Banana Leaves in Southeast Asian Cuisine
If you've eaten in a Southeast Asian restaurant, chances are one or more of the dishes you ordered was served on a piece of banana leaf. It's a very common (and effective) plating technique to give food a cultural flavor.
But banana leaves are more important in Southeast Asian cooking than as a decoration. In Southeast Asia, South America, the Caribbean, Polynesia and South Asia, banana leaves are used to wrap food before cooking.
It's not a unique cooking method by any means and banana leaves aren't the only leaves useful for wrapping food. Grape leaves are used in Greek and Middle Eastern cooking. The iconic Chinese lo mai gai is wrapped in lotus leaves. Although corn husks are not leaves, the same wrapping technique is used in making Mexican tamales.
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What Does Banana Leaf Look Like?
To learn how to use banana leaves for cooking, it is important to know a few important things about the banana leaf. To start with, the banana plant is not a tree but the largest known herbaceous flowering plant.
The banana leaf consists of the center stalk (petiole) and the blades on either side. The blades have "front" and "back" sides; the "front" side is more glossy than the "back".
Mature banana leaves grow to a length of more than two meters. The size of the leaves makes it ideal for wrapping food. Additionally, banana leaves are waterproof and naturally non-stick.
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Banana Leaves in the Market
Banana leaves sold in the markets for wrapping food have already been trimmed. The center stalk has been removed and the blades are rolled.
Banana leaves are sold fresh or frozen.
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Using the Fibrous Edge of the Banana Leaf
To use banana leaves for wrapping food, start by cutting off the tough fibrous edge. This is the part attached to the center stalk. By cutting it off, the blade is easier to roll and fold.
Do not discard the fibrous edge, however, as it is useful for tying the banana leaf-wrapped food parcel.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Cutting a Banana Leaf
Rinse the banana leaves and wipe dry with a kitchen towel. Cut into the desired sizes. You can use kitchen shears or you can just tear the leaf apart with your hands. Start by making a small tear at the edge then pull apart.
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Wilting a Banana Leaf on the Stove
To make the leaves pliable, they need to be softened. This is done by wilting the leaves. Some cooks prefer to dunk the leaves in boiling water. I prefer to wilt the leaves over fire as this saves me the trouble of having to wipe the leaves again.
To wilt the banana leaf over fire, simply put a piece of leaf on the stove. Move it around so that every inch of the leaf is touched by the fire. Do this quickly to avoid burning the leaf. You know that the leaf is sufficiently softened when the color darkens and the "front" side appears more glossy.
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Wrapping Food in Banana Leaf
Once the leaves are wilted, they are ready to wrap food with. Place the food at the center of a piece of leaf. Wrap the food just as you would a sandwich.
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Double-wrapping to Seal in the Juices
To ensure that the food is well-wrapped so that all the juices stay in the parcel, use another piece of banana leaf to double-wrap the food. Depending on the kind of food in the parcel and the cooking time, it is sometimes a good idea to wrap the food more than twice. If cooking raw food for instance which will require hours of cooking, it is not unusual to wrap the food four or five times.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Tying the Banana Leaf-wrapped Food
Once the food is wrapped, tie up the parcel to prevent the banana leaves from coming apart during cooking. This is where that tough fibrous edge of the leaf comes in. Use it. It's tough and will keep the layers of leaves tightly packed.
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Cooking the Banana Leaf-wrapped Food
The neatly tied parcels are now ready for cooking. "Cooking" can be by steaming, grilling or even boiling.
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Color Changes in the Banana Leaf During Cooking
As the food cooks and the banana leaves continue to wilt and soften in the heat, the leaves will change color. When the food is steamed or boiled, the leaves will turn a shade of olive green. When the food is grilled, some parts of the leaves will naturally become charred.
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Food Cooked in Banana Leaf
Food cooked in banana leaves acquires a subtle fragrant aroma and a sweetish flavor. The food is also juicy because the leaves kept all the moisture in during cooking.
So, next time you see banana leaves in the market, think how much more you can do with them apart from lining plates to give your food a tropical look.