Tuesday, September 25, 2012

All About the Banana Flower



Ok, just check out this flower. It’s absolutely gorgeous, isn’t it? And… kind of intimidating, if you have to figure out how to eat it. But of course, Indians being the crazy-resourceful people they are have figured out how to use every part of the banana, including the flower.

Origin:
Papua New Guinea, but as I mentioned in the banana post, India is the largest producer of bananas at 30 metric tons per year. The banana flower comes with that territory, though it’s not a common ingredient in the cuisine here.

Availability of banana flower in India:
Year round.

Where to Find the Banana Flower in India:
If you’re on an Iron Chef-bent mission to learn how to cook with this unusual ingredient, you can find the banana flower in India. That said, you won’t find it in most produce stands, stalls, or carts. You’ll have to go to a locally-known grocery store with the widest variety of produce—it’ll probably have it. Expat grocery stores, on the other hand, will likely not. Because the French, Brit, and American wouldn’t know what to do with a banana flower if it was dropped into their steamer.

You know who would also know how to get the banana flower for you? Middle/lower-middle class staff: cooks, cleaners, drivers… they’d be the ones most familiar with banana flower and where to find it. Ask them, ideally with a picture in hand if you can’t speak the language because their English skills may or may not be so great. 

Ripe and ready banana flower


Checking for Ripeness in a Banana Flower
The ripeness of a banana flower is akin to checking the quality of a tropical flower like the bromeliad: the petals should be firm, slightly waxy, and erect when pulled a bit. The color should be vibrant with hues of deep red and purple—it’s a beautiful flower, really. If it looks wilted, dehydrated, limp, and blackening, you can probably still use it, though—the edible white leaves inside are likely fine. The petals should pull back like an ear of corn.

Tarladalal.com recommends the following: look for a flower with a firm and fresh appearance; leaves should be marks, cuts, and should have a tight overlap. The one I used, however, had the leaves and pistons falling off in my hands… but the edible flower leaves on the inside were perfectly in-tact.

Taste of Banana Flower:
The taste is crunchy, nutty, and starchy. It might take a few bites to get acquainted with the taste, but it’s actually a nice, nutty flavor. If eaten raw, use lemon juice and salt to combat the starch of the flower. If you eat the piston or the core (the nonedible parts), you’ll get the same taste as a very raw banana. Remember that weird grainy, chalky feeling you get on your tongue? That’s what happens. But the edible parts are akin to raw papaya.

Nutritional Value of Banana Flower:
As per the Africa Journal of Biotechnology, banana flower nutrition per 100g is as follows:

51 kcal
1.6g of Protein
.6g of Fat
9.9g Carb
5.7fgof Fiber
56mg of Calcium
73.3mg of Phosphorous
56.4mg of Iron
13mg of Copper
553.3 mg of Potassium
48.7mg of Magnesium
1.07mg of Vitamin E


Health Benefits of Banana Flower:
The banana flower’s health benefits are numerous. A LiveSTRONG.com article lists the following:

-The flower’s extracts combat pathogenic bacteria growth, and may also inhibit malarial bacterial growth as well.
-Banana flower’s chloroform extracts were found to stabilize blood sugar levels, which may help those suffering from diabetes.
-The high antioxidant content of banana flowers prevents oxidation and inhibits molecules from destabilizing DNA. This prevents heart diseases and strokes.
-A Himalayan Home Remedies article touts the banana flower for reducing the flow of menstrual blood.
-The banana flower’s high level of magnesium boosts mood and reduces anxiety.

How to Prepare a Banana Flower:
Here’s how to clean and prepare a banana flower. Getting to the edible part of the flower is like a search-and-destroy mission, akin to cooking an artichoke: You need to peel it and get to the white inside.

This video does a better job showing the process than I could ever describe in words:




Videos like this totally make me want to become a chef!

Banana Recipe Ideas:

In research for this article, I came across one chef making a banana flower salad. It’s pretty neat! I’d say you can use banana flower in any recipe calling for either raw papaya or mango, and the dish will turn out great.




Tarladalal explains the banana leaf is served raw with a spicy dip. It is also served in curries here in India by steaming the leaf and sautéed with spices like mustard seed and dal. Stews and stif-fries are also common uses of the banana flower. Some like to simmer it in coconut milk with chili.

Personal Experience:
After writing this article, I knew I had to try making a banana flower salad. I grabbed a gigantic banana leaf flower (it was the size of a watermelon), and brought it home. I kept tasting the various parts—the piston (very bitter), the nub at the bottom of the piston (edible), and the core (way bitter and not edible). Finally I came to the white leaves and those were… nice! They’re nutty, watery, crunchy and had the texture of tough cabbage but without the taste of cabbage.

As suggested by the salad video, I kept the parts in salty lemon water until ready for use. I then scoured my refrigerator to see what I had. I wasn’t all too optimistic about my culinary skills on this one because Thai cuisine is not at all my forte… but I pulled some bell peppers, papaya and peanuts. I didn’t have carrots, mint, or basil, much to my dismay!

However, after I added all ingredients I got working on a dressing. The full recipe is here, but I’ll say this: my salad would have sucked without the addition of coconut oil. It makes all the difference and I can’t suggest it enough!

Here’s my picture:

Banana flower salad


If you’re serving this amongst guests, I suggest setting aside some of the beautiful purple leaves, cleaning them, and serving the salad in the leaf itself. It adds such nice color and makes the presentation truly unforgettable.








Random Fact about the Banana Flower:
If you leave a banana flower in your warm car and come back to it in an hour, your car will smell like an upscale hair salon. Something in the banana flower--I don't know what--resembles the smell of styling products/shampoo.

Sources:


Nutritional info:

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