Cooking and wrapping food with banana leaves is ubiquitous throughout Southeast Asia. This method of cooking has been used for thousands of years in India, Malaysia and the Philippines because of the plant’s  waterproof and flexible texture that makes it the perfect cooking tool. Banana leaves are used to grill fish for that extra, smoky flavor, steam kuihs (local pastries) to impart a delicious aroma, and wrap food like one dish meals as take-away.

Cooking with banana leaves is a common cooking technique used throughout Southeast Asia. (Photo: Agita Prasetyo)

Using leaves for food wrapping is especially great for environmental sustainability as opposed to using alternatives like plastic and aluminium as they decompose naturally. Not only does this represent a traditional way of Asian cooking, it is convenient and you can eat your food anywhere.

While the technique has slowly been phased out due to advances in technology, there is one food, in particular. that benefits from cooking in banana leaves. And we’re talking about poultry. Cooking poultry in banana leaves helps to keep the moisture and flavor of the food inside while protecting the meat from the porous, rough side of the leaf.

If that’s not enough to entice you into embracing the art of cooking with banana leaves – here’s what you should know!

Wrapping for steaming or baking

While banana leaves are not edible, the wealth of antioxidants they provide can be imparted to food, rendering them an ideal choice as a cooking wrapper. From grilling to steaming and deep frying, you can prepare a wide array of delectable dishes, ranging from aromatic chicken curries to tantalizingly tender roasted turkey. 

From grilling to steaming and deep frying, you can prepare a wide array of delectable dishes with banana leaves.

Banana leaves can be used to bake anything that can be “wrapped” in the same manner as that of tin foil or parchment paper. Because banana leaves are porous (unlike tin foil), some of the food’s fluids or juices may seep through; so, it’s a good idea to place the banana leaf “packets” in a glass casserole dish or a tray with sides. This prevents the liquids from settling at the bottom of the oven.

Besides boiling or baking, banana leaves serve as a protective “mat” for grilling delicate fish filets, shrimp, and vegetables that may otherwise slip through the grill grates. Simply lay a piece of banana leaf on the grill, place the food items on top, and let the leaf work its magic. As it turns from vibrant green to a beautiful brown during cooking, the leaf will give off a lingering smoky flavor to enhance the dish.

For steaming, place the banana leaves on the steamer basket and food on top. Or wrap  food tightly in banana leaves, to create pouches, and steam to perfection. 

Cooking poultry: Cooking poultry in banana leaves is a culinary experience like no other. Plus, it’s an effortless way to use more sustainable and natural materials in the kitchen.

Roast Turkey: Here comes the pride of 16th century aristocratic class – turkey. Why not try something new this year for Thanksgiving and cook up a roast turkey in banana leaves? The steps are straightforward: start by marinating the turkey with your desired seasonings. Blanch the banana leaves quickly for pliability. Wrap the marinated turkey securely in the leaves, trapping the moisture. Then roast until fully done in the oven. Finally, unwrap the dish and serve the succulent roast turkey with the aromatic flavor of the banana leaves!

Nothing like unwrapping roast turkey with the aromatic flavor of the banana leaves! (Photo: Cooking Hawaiian Style)

Green Chili Roast Chicken: For a delectable everyday dish, try this tempting chicken recipe! Marinate the chicken with lemon juice and salt. Sauté onions, ginger, garlic, and chilies in oil, then add almonds, paprika, turmeric, and garam masala (Indian spice blend). Blend to make the paste. Coat the chicken with the paste and refrigerate. Preheat the oven to 200°C and blanch banana leaves in hot water. Wrap the marinated chicken tightly in the leaves, tie securely, and bake in a roasting pan for 1 hour. Unwrap, baste with juices, and bake for an additional 10 minutes until brown. All that’s left to do is to just enjoy this flavorful chicken delight in banana leaves!

Chicken cooked in banana leaves renders it tender and succulent. (Photo: Archana’s Kitchen)

Cooking in banana leaves is a simple and affordable way to enhance flavors in your cooking – it adds aroma and taste and brings sustainability to the kitchen. So why not explore cooking in banana leaves and discover the joys of poultry perfection?

 Tip: You can buy banana leaves fresh or frozen from local supermarkets. If fresh, choose leaves in good condition with no signs of browning. Refrigerate, tightly wrapped in a plastic bag, for up to one week; freeze for up to six months.