A recent encounter with turmeric flowers got me thinking (again) about the Southeast Asian penchant for making use, whenever possible, of the whole plant. The sago palm supplies roofing materials (its leaves), starch, and protein. The leaves of nipa palms are also used for thatch roofing; its fruits are a tasty snack, and the sap from its flower stalk is used to make vinegar, distilled and undistilled alcoholic drinks, and sugar.
And then there's the banana tree. In this part of the world (and others, no doubt) its leaves are plates, bowls, 'pans' to place atop the barbecue, and wrappers for cooking and bundling food for takeaway. Its fruit is eaten fresh, battered and deep-fried, steamed, boiled, grilled, baked in cakes, added to sweet soups, doused with palm sugar, smashed into fritters, mashed into 'pancakes' ... well, let's just say it's eaten in more ways that you or I can ever hope to imagine. Its blossom is shredded, fresh, for Vietnamese and Thai salads; sliced and added to soups and curries; boiled and eaten, along with other vegetables and herbs, with sambal.
It's stem, too, ends up on the plate. In Vietnam snow-white disks of banana stem are an essential component of the fresh-herbs-and-veggies plate that accompanies the northern crab-and-noodle soup bun rieu cua. In Burma it's added to some versions of mohingya, a comforting fish noodle soup that might qualify as the country's national dish. Southern Indians (and Indian Malaysians) cook it with coconut milk. And, as we found last year in Butuan (Mindanao), some Filipino cooks add it to a chicken stew called binanihan.
Having only ever encountered banana stem at the market, we were interested to see how the tree is harvested. So one afternoon we headed, with our Butuan hosts, to their banana (and other fruits) plantation outside of town. We arrived to find the deed already done and the field strewn with signs of carnage.
The stem of the banana tree is composed of a series of concentric half- and three-quarter circles. We were surprised to learn that a 'tube' of banana stem roughly 2 inches (or 5-6 centimers) in diameter (like the stems in the opening photo) comes from a tree at least five times that size. Turns out the edible part of a banana stem, much like an artichoke, lies in the middle of a large amount of inedible outer material (at least with artichokes you can eat part of the leaves).
The fact that the stem isn't more widely eaten (banana trees cannot produce fruit indefinately, so you can imagine how many are cut down every year, all over the world) might have something to do with the amount of labor and time it takes to prepare it for cooking (or eating).
First it must be sliced and - if you don't want it to turn brown (less of a concern if the stem is to be cooked than if it will be served fresh) - placed in water.
Then the fun begins. Banana stem is as hairy (fibrous, really, but the fibers are as fine and thin as hairs) as a Persian cat, and every one of those hairs must be removed.
This is done by rolling a wooden stick over the surface of each slice.
With three of us 'stringing' pretty steadily it took a good hour to ready enough banana stem for a stew that ended up serving 6-8 people; by the time we were finished my hands felt arthritic (and I wasn't working at even half the pace our hostess was).
(Note the cottony bulge of collected fibers on the wooden stick in the photo above.)
After we finished stringing the stem slices the chefess rubbed them all aver with salt for several minutes - to 'crush them a little bit,' she said - then rinsed them in water and set them aside to drain.
She then added them to a native ('free range') chicken that had been cooked with garlic, onion, and ginger, and doused the lot with 'second-pressing' coconut milk.
After another 15 or so minutes she finished the dish with rich coconut cream, stirring just long enough to heat the stew through. It was fantastic - mild and comforting (chicken and coconut milk is such an easy-to-love combination) with a rich sweetness and lots of textural interest from the banana stem slices.
(The photographer was, unfortunately, too busy eating to snap the finished dish.)
This recipe, by the way, is courtesy of the same talented cook who introduced us to this over-the-top crab dish - which if you like crab, you really should try.
If banana stem is common in your kitchen I'd love to know how you're using it.
Binanihan (Native Chicken Stewed With Banana Stem and Coconut Milk)
I didn't take measurements as I watched our hostess at work, so ingredient amounts are approximate. Add less or more of whatever you dislike/like. It's the sort of dish that's hard to mess up. A possible, untested substitute for banana stem: jicama.
To make coconut milk in under 5 minutes: Place two cups grated coconut and 1 3/4 cups hot water in a blender. Pulse a couple times, just to blend (don't turn it to a puree). Empty the contents into a cheesecloth-lined strainer, gather the corners of the cloth, and squeeze. This is 'first-press' coconut milk. Repeat the process, using the already squeezed coconut and 1 1/2 cups more hot water, for ' second-press' milk.
Alternately, use canned coconut milk, stirring the solids from 1 can into the milk for 'first-press' and diluting a second can by about half with water for 'second-press'. Or try to find some of this coconut cream.
6 cloves garlic, chopped
a couple of onions, chopped
a finger of ginger, chopped (if you want more ginger flavor grate instead of chop part of it)
1 flavorful chicken, cut up (for most of us Westerners this means - into thigh and drumstick and breasts, but for the most flavor cut the chicken as if for an Asian preparations: each breast into two or three pieces, thighs and drumsticks into two; the cut bones will flavor the stew)
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups thin, 'second-press' coconut milk
3 approximately 12-inch (30-cm) lengths of banana stem
1 cup 'first-press' coconut milk (or coconut cream)
Saute onion, garlic, and ginger in cooking oil over medium heat till soft but not brown.
- Add chicken pieces, salt, and pepper, turn heat to very low, cover partially, and allow the bird to cook very slowly in its own juices until almost done, 15-30 minutes depending on how you chopped the chicken.
- Add banana stem and thin coconut milk, bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer and cook about ten minutes, or until chicken is done.
- Add coconut cream and cook until heated through, stirring all the while so that the coconut cream doesn't curdle (don't allow it to boil).
- Taste for seasoning, add salt and pepper if necessary, and enjoy with rice.