The banana flower, while striking, is one blossom more at home in woks and pans than in vases and centerpieces. With most buds weighing in at a pound or more, the petals, actually called “bracts,” are too densely wrapped to really blossom. But however brawny they may be for bouquets and the like, banana flowers have abundant uses in the kitchen, including soup, stir fries, meat and vegetable stews and salads. The inner petals, or bracts, are the edible parts. Eaten straight off the cutting board, they are starchy and bitter. But once soaked in a lemon juice/water mixture for half hour then rinsed, they are leek-like, both in substance (thin with a slight crunch) and taste (delicate).
Common to Southeast Asian cuisine, the flower has many monikers: banana blossom, banana heart, and the unfortunate vazhai poo, to name but a few. Deep magenta in color, banana flowers hang like tear-drop-shaped pendants at the end of banana clusters and grow in tropical climates.
While not a staple to American palates, they can be found year-round at most Asian or Indian grocery stores. In the Twin Cities, try Asian supermarket United Noodles (2015 E. 24th St., Minneapolis), where banana flowers cost $1.99 per pound. But call in advance, as they are not always in stock.
Choose flowers that are firm with tightly packed leaves. It’s always nice when they come wrapped in plastic, which keeps the outer leaves that vivid, freshly plucked purple hue, as well as pliant. If you don’t plan on using yours right away, be sure to wrap it well with plastic wrap or it’ll metamorphose into a sad, dingy, large-animal dropping overnight, like mine did.
Preparation for most recipes involves a simple yet tedious process to drain the bitter sap from between the bracts. A medium-sized bowl filled with water and a healthy squeeze of fresh lemon juice is kept nearby. Then two to three of the tough outer layers are removed, revealing pale pink leaves, which are tender and edible. The closer one peels to the heart, the whiter the bracts. Once peeled, the bracts must immediately be submerged in the lemon water or the torn side will oxidize, turning an innocuous, yet unappetizing sooty color. And there’s one more important precaution: the leaves are mightily attached to the stem base, so unless you have superhumanly strong hands, you’ll need to cut off a little bit of stem as you peel or your hands will be very sore by the time you strip the last leaf.
Beneath every layer lies an orderly row of lithe, yellow-tipped fronds. These are the little buds that eventually become bananas. I tried one, and it tasted bitter like a ripe banana peel, go figure. These smaller flowers are equally incorporated into dishes and discarded. This process of removing the leaves, then the smaller fronds is repeated until the leaves become too small to peel. At this point, just chop off whatever remains of the stem, and slice or dice the smaller leaves and small heart at the center. This method is used in the recipe for Vietnamese Banana Flower Salad below.
Banana flowers are high in vitamins A and C and have modest amounts of calcium and iron. And ladies, listen up, they have even been known to alleviate the pain from menstrual cramps, according to common natural remedy practice.
Banana flowers are commonly used as vegetables for cooking in countries such as Laos, India, Thailand, China, Burma, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam, where the recipe below originates. If you’re looking for an easy introduction to this seductive bud and don’t mind fishy flavors, look no further than this savory, nutritious, cold salad. Twist a friend’s arm into being your sous-chef for the rest of the recipe while you prepare the banana flower, and you’ll both be munching on this fresh dish in no time.
Vietnamese Banana Flower Salad adapted from the original recipe on BigOven
Serves two as main dishes.
1 tablespoon nuoc mam (fish sauce)
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1 skinless boneless chicken breast, cooked and finely sliced
1 skinless boneless pork chop, cooked and finely sliced
1 ½ teaspoons dried red pepper flakes or 1 finely chopped chili
1 cup bean sprouts
1 big handful mint and basil, coarsely chopped
¼ cup chopped peanuts
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
2 oranges, sliced into thin wedges, pith and skin removed
1 fresh banana flower
1 lemon (for water mixture)
Combine first eight ingredients in a large bowl. Prepare banana flower according to instructions above, discarding undeveloped baby bananas. As you peel, try to keep leaves as whole as possible. Reserve the lemon water in another medium-sized bowl. Once the leaves are rinsed, stack several on top of one another and slice them crosswise into thin strips. To keep the leaves from turning black, place immediately in the lemon water, turning occasionally. You will have a heaping double handful of sliced banana flower. Let the sliced flower soak in the lemon water for 30 minutes.
Rinse the flower in a colander under running water until the water runs clear. Drain the banana flower and toss it with other ingredients which have been marinating in the large bowl. Sprinkle with the peanuts, oranges, and sesame seeds.
Banana flowers also are available in preserved form and can be used in many recipes to reduce prep time. Soak the dried flowers in cold water for ten minutes and rinse.