When I was very young, my family moved to Taiwan, and one of my most distinct memories of that time was when a beautiful woman served us a meal right after our arrival. She smiled sweetly and placed bundles of food wrapped up in banana leaves in front of us. I thought it was amazing that the food was wrapped like a present. I don’t remember what was inside of those particular bundles, but I’ll always carry the sense of being welcomed and feeling safe when presented with food that looked like a gift
The history of using banana leaves and bamboo in cooking
The practice of steaming food in bamboo and banana leaves goes back for centuries in tropical and subtropical areas like Asia and the Pacific islands. I think using these natural items to prepare food today is a beautiful way to create a connection between ancient cooking techniques, traditional island flavor, and a modern lifestyle. Adding bamboo and banana leaf steaming to a repertoire of cooking techniques is a way to create a meal that celebrates island culture and heritage, to invoke memories of a past meal, or to inspire future generations to experiment with tropical cuisine.
Examples of food steamed in banana leaves and bamboo
There are numerous types of food that are commonly steamed in banana leaves and then either tied with bamboo or steamed in bamboo pots. Both savory foods and sweet rice desserts are common offerings. I really wanted to recreate my sweet childhood memory by using this beautiful method. So far, I’ve tried my hand at Mok Pa (from Thailand), Chimaki (from Japan), and Nacatamal (from Nicaragua and Honduras).
My mother got a Mok Pa recipe from one of her work friends, Janelle. Janelle included a couple tips for the process to make things easier for Mom and I. Our Mok Pa recipe began with warmed banana leaves. Janelle said warming the leaves would soften them to make them more pliable so we could fill them with savory savory ingredients and spices. The spicy fragrance of the Mok Pa cooking filled the kitchen and wafted into the living room, bringing the rest of the family out to see when dinner would be ready. Mom and I experimented with a few different combinations of ingredients, adding hot peppers for my dad’s because he loves fiery hot food and mushrooms to the ones for Mom because she loves mushrooms. We also added a couple minutes to Janelle’s recommended cooking time after the first batch to get the softer, stickier texture we wanted. It was so colorful and the wrapped Mok Pa had the same gift-like appearance I loved so much as a child.
Mom and I enjoyed our Mok Pa cooking session so much, we decided to try the Japanese version, Chimaki, next. Chimaki is a dumpling with a rice base, and we decided to make a savory version for dinner followed by a sweet version for dessert. Making both gave us the chance to spend some extra time together while preparing the dishes.
In traditional chimaki, the rice is uncooked when wrapped in the leaf, but Mom suggested steaming the rice before wrapping it to make the process a bit easier and faster. We used Janelle’s tip again, about warming the banana leaves to make them easier to work with. It worked out beautifully! We added the savory ingredients to the rice and then tied the dumplings into long, conical shapes before placing them in the steamer. The aroma as the Chimaki cooked had a tangy, almost citrusy touch when we prepared the savory packets. The sweetened ones, we added a touch of cinnamon and honey to the rice, and the aroma was light and sweet.
For our third journey into cooking with banana leaves, Mom and I picked a south-of-the-border variation, Nacatamal. Nacatamal is a type of tamale that uses a banana leaf as a wrapper instead of a corn husk. For the filling, we decided to try spicy corn dough with bits of meat, vegetables, and cheese. The directions we found online noted that nacatalam takes a long time to steam — three to four hours. So we decided to make it on one of our cookie baking days. We prepared the Nacatamal, then while it was steaming, we baked cookies and sipped coffee. The kitchen was so filled with the scent of foods cooking, it was incredible! The nacatamal provided a spicy scent while the sugary cookies added a mouthwatering blend of cinnamon-based sweetness.
The role bamboo plays in steaming food
I feel bamboo is such a versatile Ingredient to use when cooking. I like to add young bamboo shoots to dishes like stir fry to add a light, crunchy texture. The shoots have a mild flavor that reminds me of a cross between almonds and water chestnuts. I also find bamboo shoots visually appealing when added to chunks of meat and broccoli trees when I’m making stir fry. However, bamboo isn’t always used as food. I’ve experimented with Chimaki in banana leaves tied with strips of bamboo for steaming, and stuffing a filling similar to what I use for Nacatamal into larger bamboo pieces. Used this way, the bamboo doesn’t affect the flavor or texture of the food, but it adds a visually pleasing effect that’s hard to top.
What the banana leaf adds when steaming food
To me, banana leaves are an interesting part of a steamed dish because the leaves aren’t meant to be eaten, but the flavor they release seeps into the food. The flavor and scent are a touch on the sweet side, and because the leaves are waterproof, all the flavor and juices from the foods are trapped in the bundled packets of food during the cooking process.
I love creating these authentic dishes using bamboo and banana leaf steaming. There’s something about it that brings out the flavors and transports my family and me to distant lands.