One of the blessings of our wonderfully cosmopolitan city is that immigrants demand foods from their countries. This creates a need for small grocery stores devoted to a spectrum of ethnic cooking needs. Then larger specialty stores and supermarkets start to stock these goods. Twenty years ago I couldnt spell tortilla, now I not only eat them, but look for interesting ways to use them. The same could be said for what were once distinctive and little appreciated foods from the Middle East (falafel, shish tatouk), Latin America (tamales, chilies) and even Europe (risotto, schnitzel). All of these are now familiar words in our gastronomic lexicon.
With that kind of introduction, let me call on the humble banana leaf to step forward. One doesnt eat this leaf which can be several feet long and up to a foot wide. Rather it is used to wrap foods and give food flavour. It is also cheap. The price of banana leaf on the world market, unlike coffee or pork bellies, has remained a dollar a kilo for some time. A thick package of frozen banana leaf costs about $2 at Latin American or Philipino stores or specialty shops such as Les Douceurs du Marché in the Atwater Market.
Look at the package carefully before you buy to make sure there is no freezer burn or that the package is not open or that the leaves do not have a lot of cut marks. They will keep frozen for a long time. Thaw them in the fridge before using them. The leaves are stringy. What we get is actually half a leaf and the rigid section on one side is where it was attached to the rib. Before using the leaves, take scissors and cut off this fibrous tough edge. The leaves should be washed and rinsed to remove any dirt or pesticide residue. They will be dark green, glistening and there should be a subtle but definite smell which is a little like sweet sunbaked straw.
Some dishes call for banana leaves to be wrapped around tough cuts of meat and cooked for a long time at a low heat. Pork is particularly good this way. However, I like to use them to make interesting finger food such as Mexican tamales or Chinese rice cakes. In either case, the technique is similar.
Cut cleaned leaves into rectangles of about 8 x 4 inches. Fill these with a mixture of cooked rice and beans, or chopped meat and grits or any other combination of a cooked mild grain and spicier more flavourful filling. The combinations are infinite and can include sliced chicken, hardboiled egg, grilled vegetables, grated cheese, etc. This is a great way to incorporate left overs . Use the cooked grain as a base for about a spoonful of the filling. Leave enough room to fold each leaf over so that it forms a pocket. Steam them, with the folded side down, for about an hour before serving.