This week in the produce section, I found myself face-to-face with the mysterious banana flower. Not having any clue how one might eat such a thing, I put my faith in google, and the banana flower in my basket.
The most common preparation I found for banana flowers is in a dish similar to a green papaya salad, although they are also used in stir-frys, curries and fritters. The banana flower itself looks like a over-sized purple bud, about a foot in length. What appear at first to be petals are really bracts, or modified leaves, that shelter the actual banana flowers. Under each leaf is a row of the tiny tube-like flowers, each with the beginning of a banana at their base. Towards the interior of the bloom, the leaves and undeveloped flowers pack together into a tender heart.
To prepare the banana flower, the tough outer leaves are discarded, while the inner ones are chopped and soaked in water with lemon or vinegar to remove some of the starchy, bitter sap. When slicing the flower's heart, the sap forms thick, sticky strands, clings to your knife and fingers, and turns rubbery and black with exposure to the air. It is pungent, with an intense starchiness that sucks all the feeling of moisture from the mouth. Closer to the base, the leaves share this biting dryness, further out, they are sweet and herbal, without a hint of banana flavor.
The bright flavors of the leaves join perfectly with spicy chili, sweet sugar, bitter citrus and umami fish sauce to make a crisp, refreshing salad.
Banana Flower Salad
- 1 banana flower
- 1 medium daikon radish
- basil (mint, cilanto or all three would also be great)
- 1" ginger
- 1 large clove garlic
- fish sauce
- soy sauce or salt
- lime or lemon
- 1 chili (Thai bird chili would be best, I settled on a jalepeno pepper)
- rice vinegar
Other possible additions include peanuts, cooked meat, dried shrimp, bean sprouts or other vegetables.
I discarded the baby bananas inside the flower and sliced the inner leaves and heart, placing them in water with lemon juice for about 20 minutes. In the mean time, I grated up a medium daikon radish, minced a small handful of basil, chopped the jalapeño pepper, and put the ginger and garlic through a press. I added a generous splash of fish sauce - probably a couple tablespoons - and dashes of sugar, soy sauce, and vinegar, stirring, tasting, and adjusting the flavors until I was happy with it. The goal is to achieve a balance between the sweet, salty, sour and hot flavors so that no single note overwhelms the dish. Then I tossed in the banana flowers and tested the flavor again. Finally, I used a wooden spatula to give the salad a good pounding, softening the fibers of the tougher banana flower slices, and melding together the flavors.
While this salad has the perfect spark and bite for a hot summer (or spring!) day, I don't think I would bother splurging on the banana flower again - a green papaya salad packs the same fresh punch without the price tag. But I would certainly seek it out while traveling in Asia!