When I think about bananas, my mind wanders beyond the realm of fruit, smoothie fodder, and the perennial slipping-on-banana-peel gag. Because in Malaysia, and many other Asian countries around the equator where bananas grow in abundance, our cuisines are laden not just with the fruit of the plant, but its droopy, fan-like leaves too.
While banana leaves are far too fibrous to be eaten raw or even cooked, they serve as excellent wrappers for food. Just like how parchment paper keeps fish en papillote moist and steamy, and how the grape leaves in Mediterranean dolmas hold and concentrate the juices of the meat and rice within, banana leaves can do the same.
Walk through the streets of Kuala Lumpur and you’ll come across vendors manning charcoal grills, grilling stingrays and mackerels bound tightly in banana leaves, the fish often rubbed red with sambal and turmeric spice. (I make my own version with a romesco-inspired sauce.)
Walk a little more, and you might chance upon shops selling Malay kuihs—a category of bite-sized snacks common in Malaysia and Indonesia, many of which are wrapped in banana leaves. My favorite kuihs—pulut panggang, bingka ubi, and lepat pisang (“grilled glutinous rice,” “tapioca cake,” and “folded banana,” respectively)—are all made of rice or fruit tightly packed within banana leaves, bound into small parcels, and then either steamed or grilled. Through the leaves, there’s a sweet grassiness that gets imparted onto the ingredients within.
While the main purpose of using banana leaves as a wrapping might be to keep things moist during the cooking process, over time, their subtle, sweet scent has left its mark on our local food.
And then, of course, there’s a whole type of meal dedicated to the banana leaf itself: the ubiquitous banana leaf rice. Originating from India (also a country that uses banana leaves liberally), banana leaf rice restaurants are as common as Jewish delis or pizza shops are in New York. They all serve the same Build-A-Bear–style meal where you choose your specific combination of rice (white or biryani), curries (usually chicken, fish, or lentil dahl), and side dishes (a Pride-flag array of raw and simmered vegetables, tandoori meats, and a spread of deep-fried fare), all collated and served on top of a whole banana leaf the size of a sheet tray.
But by far the most common manifestation of banana leaf in Malaysia is in the humblest version of our national dish: nasi lemak. Though the hallmarks of nasi lemak might be white rice cooked in coconut milk, and a heavy, spicy sambal, what’s rarely realized is that the dish is often wrapped in a rectangular cutout of a banana leaf, folded neatly into a tiny pyramid for takeout ease.
While the main purpose of using banana leaves as a wrapping might be to keep things moist during the cooking process, over time, their subtle, sweet scent has left its mark on our local food. Many kuihs would not be kuihs without the herbal aroma of banana leaves; nasi lemak served on plates rather than in banana leaf parcels are deemed, by many, inauthentic.
So the next time you’re in this region of the world, look out for foods wrapped in the large, all-engulfing leaves of the banana tree. With that signature herbal aroma and a tinge of sweetness, you might just go bananas for it.