Cooking with Banana Leaves

Ever since I read the recipe for fish cooked in banana leaves, I was filled with desire. But Banana leaves proved to be A. not very plentiful in the shopping precincts of Berkshire and B. impossible to grow. So I abandoned the mission. Until, that is, I saw the formerly unobtainable leaves glistening with promise in the deep-freeze section of the absolutely fabulous SeeWoo Oriental food store. It truly is the palace of dreams.

Here are the frozen banana leaves, shining in their packet.

My new game with recipes is to note the recipe book photograph of the finished dish and compare it with my own culinary efforts. So let’s begin this journey of delight with a reproduction of the recipe book photograph:

That, folks, is the standard to aim for. Note the oil stains on the book and its generally grubby state; those details are a mark of the book’s excellence and popularity in this household.

So I dutifully grated limes and ginger root, crushed garlic and chopped chillies up extremely small. Then I dumped all these delicious things into some light coconut milk and allowed their flavours to mingle while I prepared the leaves.

The leaves need to be cut into roughly 30cm squares and blanched in near-boiling water. They are then immediately cooled under the cold tap and patted dry. Then a fish fillet plus the coconut/lime/ginger/chilli/garlic joy is inserted into the centre of each leaf-square. 2 halves of a lemongrass (cut open) are laid over the top, then everything is bundled up beautifully and secured with kitchen string. The parcels are then cooked on Gas Mark 7 for 15 minutes and served with rice.

How satisfyingly lovely are the parcels? So green, so waxy, so secure, so leafy and joyous. So like foil yet so biodegradeable. Where foil is the utilitarian packaging of a parcel – the jiffy bag of the food-parcelling world, if you will – Banana leaves are the artisan gift-wrapping. They elevate their humble, haddocky contents into the ambrosia of the gods just by looking so immensely cool and by bringing a little bit of jungle-goodness into our lives during these most unexotic and dark days of January.

Excuse the photos. I took a lot of photos.

So then, set upon a plate beside a heap of jasmine rice with spring onions sliced through it, the parcels are presented to the table and unwrapped to unleash a bouquet of delicious nose-candy upon those assembled.

I think I got quite close to the recipe book photo; let us see that once again and compare and contrast:

All mine requires is some extra oil stains and some delicate blue back-lighting…

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