Thursday, September 15, 2011

INGREDIENTS - Banana Flower (Coração de Banana)

Just yesterday, as I walked out to the parking structure behind my apartment in the urban center of Fortaleza I noticed that one of the banana plants that grace the garden was beginning to bear fruit. Hanging from the central core of the plant was a thick bamboo-like stalk. Along the lower portions of the stalk tiny green fingers reached up for light and air, the nascent bananas themselves. And at the lower tip of the stalk hung an elongated dusky-crimson bulb, formed, like an upside-down artichoke, of overlapping leaves. The flower was still in a bud state even though it was quite large - about 8 to 10 inches long. Since an artichoke is merely the bud of a variety of thistle, the resemblance between the two does make sense.

And just like the artichoke and other flower buds such as capers and tiger-lily buds, the banana flower that I spotted is, or will be soon, edible. The banana flower is an important ingredient in many tropical cuisines such as Thai, Indian and not-surprisingly Brazilian. Here in Brazil almost the entire banana plant is employed usefully in the kitchen - the fruit of course, the flower, and the leaves which are used as serving platters or used to wrap foods for steaming.

Although banana flowers are particularly associated with the food of the interior Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, they are appreciated everywhere in Brazil where bananas can grow, which is just about anywhere. A banana plant (large though they are, they are not trees, they are plants) will grow happily in almost any location and in any soil as long as it has plenty of sunshine and water, lots of heat and absolutely no frost. Most agricultural zones and many urban regions of Brazil fit that bill climatically. Everybody in Brazil eats the fruit of the banana, or at least I've never met a Brazilian who didn't, and a lot of them eat the flower as well. In Brazilian Portuguese, there are a lot of names for this part of the plant, most of them regional variations. Sometimes it's called flor de bananeira (banana-plant flower) or flor de banana (banana flower) just like in English, but it's more commonly known as coração de banana (banana heart). In some places it bears the charming name of umbigo de banana, which literally means "banana belly-button."

To prepare a banana flower for eating, the tougher outer leaves are stripped away, just as they are in an artichoke, and only the tender inner leaves are used. Because the outer leaves exude a sticky sap which can stain and blacken clothes and surfaces, it's a good idea to use rubber gloves when preparing the flower. I can personally attest to the importance of this precaution - the sap is super-sticky and WILL NOT wash away. Your fingers will be sticky for hours. LFMF (in Internetese "Learn from my fail.") The tender inner leaves can be eaten raw, and often are, in Thai salads for example. In Brazil the leaves are  normally chopped then cooked and are not traditionally served raw.

The leaves of the banana flower are not sweet, and have a meaty quality which makes them very useful in vegetarian main dishes. In south-east Asia and India they are used as the focus of a number of curries. In Brazil, they're either mixed with meat or substitute for it, often combined with vegetables and seasonings to complete the dish. In tomorrow's post on Flavors of Brazil, we'll publish a recipe which uses this unusual ingredient. Although it's not commonly available in non-tropical regions, I remember seeing banana flowers available once or two in Vietnamese markets in Vancouver, my hometown. If they can be sourced in definitely-non-tropical Canada, they're likely to be available elsewhere, at least in urban areas where there are immigrant communitites from tropical regions. If you happen to eagle-eye a banana flower in an ethnic market - they're unmistakeable - pick one up and try a Brazilian, or a Thai or a Vietnamese recipe at home. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

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