In addition to the oft-overlooked stem, there's another part of the banana tree - one we never see - that's also edible.
Last March on Bali - between an impromptu gengong recital, Nyepi festivities, and a DIY-coconut oil lesson, we learned that the base of one variety of banana tree is used to make a type of tum. (Tum are steamed banana leaf packets of chopped meat or fish mixed with herbs and spices.)
The variety of banana tree harvested for the tum produces very small bananas that, because of their many hard, black seeds, are pretty much inedible (a similar variety grew in our old KL neighborhood, so it may be common around Asia). The part of the plant that goes into tum is the bulbous portion of the banana tree stem's base - from which grow its roots - that which sits right below the ground. The piece our hosts started with was about 12 inches (30 centimeters) in diameter; its flesh is heavy and dense, a bit like that of a coconut.
Much like our friend the banana stem this ingredient loses a lot of mass between harvest and preparation for cooking. After 'peeling' the chunk of stem by hacking away an inch or two on all sides and removing the dark inner core (which is bitter, we were told), the banana stem base was ready for grating. (Note that, like the stem, it discolors when exposed to air).
The flavor base of most Balinese dishes is a bumbu, or spice paste, and this tum is no different. Many of the same rhizomes, herbs, and other flavor-makers appear over and over again in Balinese bumbu. What distinguishes each dish is the proportions in which these ingredients are combined.
Here we have two types of chilies, ginger, galangal, kencur (aka lesser galangal), fresh turmeric root, white peppercorns, salt, garlic, shallots, and trassi (Indonesian shrimp paste). Turning it all to a paste is quick work if you've got a good heavy stone mortar and pestle.
This a pork tum, and a good handful of the stuff, roughly chopped and lightly sauteed, was ground into the finished bumbu. Finally, the bumbu'd pork was mixed with the grated banana stem base. (No banana stem base to hand? Use coconut instead - see the recipe below.)
For this dish the banana tree gives us not only a major ingredient but cooking vessels as well.
I have to admit a lack of proficiency when it comes to wrapping foods in banana leaf. From what I observed the process for these tum goes something like this:
Hold the banana leaf sort-of rectangle on your palm, and use your index finger to bring the middle of the edge of the leaf that's farthest from your body up and towards you.
Place a generous spoonful of tum in the middle-ish of the banana leaf, right where the fold created by your index finger ends. Bring one of the corners nearest your body in towards the center of the leaf, and follow with the other corner.
Secure each package with a strip of banana stem.If you know what you're doing (I didn't; the packets pictured above are not my handiwork) the tum packs turn out beautifully.
Twenty minutes in the steamer and the tum were ready to eat.
The banana base lent this tum a little toothsomeness, a hint of sweetness, and 'meatiness', without weighing it down. Each little packet was bursting with flavor and pretty substantial, yet felt light in the stomach. The seasonings came through in all their fragrant glory. They'd make great appetizers to accompany a rum cocktail.
Banana Stem Base (or Coconut) Tum
Makes 16-20 packets, or thereabouts
Ibu Nengah, our cooking teacher, suggests grated coconut as a substitute for the banana base. You might add a bit more lime juice to counter the coconut's added sweetness - or not. You can substitute foil for banana leaf but of course you'll be missing the fragrance the leaf lends to the tum. If you do use foil you might want to lightly oil it, and be sure not to wrap the packages too tight - the tum needs room to 'breathe' and steam.
5 garlic cloves
1 slice fresh turmeric root (substitute scant 1/4 tsp ground turmeric)
4 hot chilies (such as Thai bird chili) - or less, to taste
1 long red or green mild chili, chopped
4 plump shallots, roughly cut
3/4-inch (2 cm) piece shrimp paste, Indonesian trassi preferably (toast it under the broiler or on a piece of foil placed over a gas flame if you
want to tone down the flavor)
2 slices of galangal
3 slices ginger
about 20 white peppercorns
2-3 small knobs of cencur (or omit or add 1 slice ginger in its place)
salt to taste
about 1 cup roughly chopped pork meat
2 cups grated banana stem base or fresh coconut
5 shallots, thinly sliced and fried in oil till golden, then removed and drained
1 small lime, halved
banana leaves or foil cut into approximately 7-inch (12-cm) squares
- Grind all the bumbu ingredients together with - preferably - a mortar and pestle, or in a food processor. If you use a food processor don't make the paste perfectly smooth.
- Lightly saute the meat in minimal oil - just long enough to get the pink out. Set aside to cool, then mix into the bumbu. Grinding is preferably - you want the paste and the meat to really meld, and the meat to break down a bit.
- Mix the coconut into the mixture with your hands, then add the golden shallot slices and the juice of half a lime. Taste and add more salt and lime juice if you wish (the lime juice should just balance the coconut/banana stem base's sweetness - you don't want a 'sour' tum).
- Place heaping spoonfuls of the mixture on banana leaf squares and wrap as described above. Or, lightly oil foil pieces, place the tum mixture in the middle, bring up the foil's 4 corners, and secure to create a somewhat loose - but well-sealed - packet.
- Steam the tum for twenty minutes. Eat hot, warm, or at room temperature.