It's the secret to perfectly cooked fish—and it's just fun to eat.
As far as fun ways to serve food goes, opening up a banana leaf parcel at the table is as close as you’ll ever get to feeling like you’re unwrapping a present for dinner.
It’s a staple in South American, Caribbean, and Asian cuisine—steaming veggies, rice, and fish in carefully folded packets of banana leaves protects delicate veggies and protein from direct, dry heat. The leaves also impart a mild, sweet, earthy flavor, and individual banana leaf parcels make for an impressive presentation—but it’s truly easy enough to prepare for a crowd if you’re looking for an entrée with a little extra flair.
Steaming in banana leaves is surprisingly simple. It’s very similar to cooking en Papillote, the French technique of parceling food into parchment or foil packets. Start by cutting off any dried out, frayed, or wilted edges. Then trim the leaves into large circles or squares, about 12 inches wide, and place your “filling” in the center.
The banana leaves provide a sweet aroma to the dish, so you can keep it simple. A good formula: Start with a mild, quick-cooking protein (fish like halibut, snapper, mahi mahi, or tilapia are a great start), toss in some aromatics like your favorite herbs and spices, and add a source of moisture like cuts of citrus, a splash of wine, or broth, and you should be good to go.
Fold up the edges over the filling, and then place that packet, fold side down, in a second leaf and repeat. You can secure the whole thing by tying it shut with a piece of fiber from the leaves, using toothpicks, or just flipping it upside down and letting the weight of the filling hold the packet shut. Then, you’re set to grill, bake, or steam on the stovetop. One tip to keep in mind: Unlike parchment paper or foil, banana leaves are porous, so if you’re baking, make sure to place the leaf packets in a baking pan to avoid leaving a mess in your oven from the leaking juices.
Ready to give it a try? Cook this Caribbean-Spiced Fish Wrapped in Banana Leaves if you’re looking for an impressive, flavor-packed dish that tastes like summer. This citrusy Grilled Shrimp in Banana-leaf Pouch is a great way to mix up your usual grilling game with Asian-inspired flavors. And this Otak Otak, a spicy Southeast Asian dish, can be prepped a day in advance, making it perfect for company.
If you want to try your hand at cooking with banana leaves, you can head to your local Asian or Latin market and find leaves in the freezer or refrigerated section. You’ll want to pick out the freshest looking leaves with very few or no brown spots. We recommend trying to use them ASAP, but if you plan on cooking with them later (or have leftovers), the leaves should be good for about a week in your fridge, or about six months in the freezer, as long as they are tightly wrapped in plastic to prevent drying out, according to The New Food Lover’s Companion.