Fragrant Wrap For The Market and Kitchen
Versatile material used in tropical areas, such as the West Indies and the Philippines, in wrapping foodstuffs for the market. The leaf of banana is chosen carefully for certain kitchen preparations such as Javanese pepesan. Chefs and merchants enjoy the use of the leaf in nearly all regions where bananas are grown.
In The Philippines
In her 1976 culinary ethnography of the Philippines, Monina Mercado devoted an eloquent section to the banana leaf and its virtues. We learn from Mercado that because most rural cooking in the Philippines requires the use of a wood fire, so often the result is burning on the bottom of the pot; a banana leaf may be used to prevent this effect:
Lining a pot of rice, a piece of banana leaf at the bottom will not burn before the top is done to fluffy whiteness. And even if the bottom should burn to a brown crisp - if the cook has gone away to chat over the fence - the crust, stuck to the banana leaf...would be a delicacy: golden brown and toasty crisp, subtly flavored with burnt banana leaf.
The flavor is harmonious with rice; Mercado describes it as "cool but not mint cool; faintly smoky and lightly fragrant, but far from aromatic."
With a Critical Eye
A banana leaf is chosen with care when used in cookery. One must find a very young leaf, thin and yellow, for its strength and desirable flavor. The younger leaves provide endurance for longer cooking times. The cook may soften a mature, dark green banana leaf over a flame. This process will bring forward its concealed fragrance and taste.
Hot Steam and Coconut
In tropical regions, vegetables and rice may be wrapped in banana leaf to be steamed. Javanese cookery refers to this mode of food preparation as pepesan. A typical pepesan dish includes salt fish, spices, with young coconut and yogurt. It may also refer to a sumptuous combination of meat or vegetables with spices.
Banana leaves, endlessly available in tropical regions, serve as impromptu plates, tableclothes, and containers for rice and other food; Mercado explains:
Simply as a container, banana leaf is as versatile as the imagination. Twisted into a small cone pinned together with a sliver, it holds peanuts, broiled corn or betel. Twisted into a large fat cone tied with twine, it holds take-home pancit from the Chinese restaurant. The same large fat banana leaf cone holds the farmer's lunch for the day; hot newly-cooked rice with a bit of fish on top.
A patron of local markets may locate a plentitude of banana leaves for free; they are often used to wrap imported tropical produce. These will be the dark green, mature leaves and will require softening by flame.
Cordero-Fernando, Gilda. The Culinary Culture of the Philippines. Philippines: GCF Books, 1976.