Just like many other foods, Asian dumplings cooked in banana leaves are extra heavenly. Open one up and inhale the leaf’s grassy perfume, then marvel at the dumpling’s dough which will be stained pale green. Finally bite into the dumpling and you’ll savor the mild tealike flavor that the banana leaf imparts during cooking. Many Southeast Asian dumplings rely on banana leaf for their trademark taste, fragrance, and appearance. Prime examples include banana-leaf packets of Indonesian sticky rice and spiced chicken (lemper ayam), Thai banana and coconut sticky rice (kao tom padt), and Vietnamese rice, pork and mushroom pyramids (banh gio).
Aside from contributing culinary aesthetics, banana leaf is also a practical kitchen tool. As a food wrapper, it functions like plastic wrap, parchment paper, and aluminum foil to prevent drying and sticking and retaining heat. You can lay banana leaf down and serve food on it like a plate or placemat, and fold it into various shapes as to-go containers. It's also a great for lining steamer trays to prevent sticking. It's biodegradable too. That’s ancient green living.
Fresh banana leaf is easy to come by in tropical climes, and in fact, my mother always made sure there was a banana tree in her yard. People are also picky about which type of banana tree yields the more tender leaves that are easier to manipulate for wrapping up food. Indonesian Chef Daniel Sudar of Red Lantern in Redwood City, CA, once told me that in Indonesia, there’s a particular chubby sweet banana that has the softest leaves for cooking purposes. He was taught to only use that kind of banana leaf in traditional cooking and misses it dearly.
How and where to buy banana leaves
Here in the States, we don’t have the same range of choices when shopping for banana leaf. I’ve recently seen fresh banana leaf in ethnic markets in Atlanta, GA, and even at Whole Foods in Los Angeles. While access to fresh banana leaves is increasing, frozen ones are much more readily available. I’ve found that the frozen ones are in general, soft and easy to work with. Some times just because something is fresh doesn’t mean that it’s better. Some cooks suggest aluminum foil as a banana leaf substitute but that robs a dumpling of a subtle, fresh layer of flavor. I don’t recommend that practice.
I always keep a couple 1-pound packages in the freezer -- a convenient modern alternative to cutting a leaf from a nearby tree. Look for very flat packages of frozen banana leaves in Chinese, Southeast Asian. The packages are usually near the frozen coconut, cassava (manioc) and pandan leaves. Frozen banana leaves are also sold at Latin markets where customers are likely to use them for wrapping tamales. In fact, the package at the top of this post was purchased from Mi Pueblo Mexican market in Watsonville, CA, but the leaves came from the Philippines. If you purchase fresh banana leaves, you may need to soften them. See rescue section below for a tip.
Prepping Banana Leaves
When working with frozen banana leaves, partially thaw the package until you can gently pry the leaves open. Use scissors to cut off a tear-free section that meets your needs (torn leaves are hard to work with), then refold and refreeze the unused portion. I often have a ruler handy for ensuring proper size. As you trim the section to size, don’t let the stiff ribs dictate your cut (or you will get a misshaped piece of leaf) and always remove any dark brown edge. The dark edges will stain your food and leave a slightly off flavor.
Before using the leaf in cooking, rinse it and then wipe it dry with a paper towel to remove the white residue. Wipe in the same direction as the lines on the leaf, or it may tear.
Banana Leaf Rescue
Remedies I've collected from personal experience and wise cooks:
- If a leaf is particularly stiff, pass it over the flame of a gas stove or a hot electric burner.
- If your banana leaf tears while you’re wrapping or you discover that it’s too small, use a small piece as a patch or to make up the difference. Banana leaf becomes somewhat self sealing when heat is applied to it. No one will notice the difference. And, your food may have extra banana leaf flavor!
Once banana leaf has been cut, washed and dried, it can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Just put the leaf in a plastic bag and they’ll be ready when you are!
Is Banana Leaf Edible?
No. Always advise guests to not eat the leaf. It's a wrapper like parchment paper.
Feel free to add banana leaf tips and pose questions!