The cooks in Southeast Asia’s rice-growing communities have used banana leaves in their kitchens for generations. The banana leaf protects its contents from burning or drying out while grilling or steaming. As well, the waxy coating of a banana leaf contributes a distinctive aroma to the food, and the leaves trap moisture and smoke. Thus this method ultimately served as an effective and accessible cooking technique. Although banana leaves are still deployed as wrapping materials for certain traditional foods, their use is diminishing, especially among city dwellers.
The best banana leaves for cooking are those of the taanee banana variety (ใบตองตานี); however, these are not usually grown in home gardens as it is believed that the taanee banana tree hosts the female spirit ghost, maae praai taanee (แม่พรายตานี).
You will find that fresh banana leaves are brittle and break up easily when you try to fold them. To soften the leaves, I split them first along the midrib into two long pieces and leave them in the sun for a day to wilt down. I then temper them on direct fire, passing them over the flame until the dull side turns glossy.
Banana leaves of different species have different characteristics. Regardless of the type you use, it is a good practice to cut them in the morning and to choose semi-mature leaves – not too young and not too old.
After the heat treatment, the leaves become pliable and can be folded without cracking or breaking.
The shiny side of the banana leaf contains wax. This wax, when it burns, delivers the characteristic smoke profile of food cooked in banana leaves. It also helps to contain the moisture of the ingredients and prevent them from drying up.
As a rule of thumb, the shiny side of the leaf should always face both the heat source and the ingredients that are being cooked in it.
A visual guide to common methods for wrapping sweet and savory foods in banana leaves.