As someone who has a savoury tongue over a sweet tooth, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that bananas—the fruit I loathe the most—grow on the same plant that produces an essential ingredient in my favourite south Indian stir-fries: the banana blossom.
Banana blossoms are large, unopened buds, and typically emerge at the end of a bunch of growing bananas. While they are a secondary crop to the fruit itself, banana blossoms are widely used in savoury dishes in traditional Thai and southern Indian cuisine, and are full of fibre. Most banana blossoms have an astringent and bitter flavour with a slight crunch.
In Thai culture, it’s believed that banana blossoms help with lactation and are often fed to new mothers. While there is some scientific evidence to support this, it’s always best to consult your family doctor before trying out home remedies. A similar belief exists in India, where banana blossoms are thought to be beneficial for women’s hormones and fertility.
Whether or not these remedies work, banana blossoms’ taste is reason enough to incorporate them into your cooking. While most Canadians are increasingly familiar with the use of raw bananas—especially plantains— in cooking, banana blossoms are unfamiliar territory. But with this versatile ingredient readily available in Canada, don’t miss out on it any longer. Here’s everything you need to know about preparing, using and shopping for banana blossoms.
Where are banana blossoms from?
Pre-colonization, Indian food didn’t include the tomato-laden spicy curry it’s known for today. In fact, tomatoes, potatoes, red chilies and many other common ingredients in Indian cuisines aren’t indigenous to its regions and were introduced through colonization and related trade.
So what exactly did people in this part of the world cook before colonization? Each and every part of the banana tree—including leaves, stems, fruit and blossoms. While the use of banana trees in northern India isn’t common, the southern part of the country keeps this tradition alive.
“Back home in Kerala, pretty much every house has one or two [banana plants],” says Joe Thottungal, chef and owner of Coconut Lagoon restaurant in Ottawa. Kerala is one of the southern states of India, where an abundance of banana trees flourish.
On the other hand, Thailand was the only southeast Asian country to have escaped colonization, so using each part of the banana plant is a culinary practice that’s alive and well in the country.
How are banana blossoms prepared?
Fresh banana blossoms are shaped like a teardrop and are typically purple-red on the outside—an outer layer peel that is removed before consumption. As you remove the peel, a sweet and floral aroma may emerge. The inner peach-pink core of the blossom is what’s typically cooked. Since it’s quick to oxidize and turn brown, raw banana blossom should be placed in cold water with a bit of salt or vinegar after chopping or shredding. (If you’re using canned blossoms, they will come pre-cut or pre-shredded.).
Which dishes can banana blossoms be used in?
Banana blossoms are used both as a main ingredient and as a fresh garnish when finely chopped. For a quick snack, they are often shredded or chopped and lightly steamed to serve with dips.
Those from southern Indian states often make a stir-fry using chopped banana blossoms, coconut oil and mustard seeds, eaten as a side dish or snack. Deep-fried croquettes—also known as cutlets—are made with mashed potatoes, banana flowers and spices, and served as an afternoon snack with chai.
In Thailand, banana flowers are commonly served raw as a side dish alongside pad thai. According to Pranee Halvorsen, a Thai chef and culinary educator based in Seattle, munching on banana blossoms between bites of pad thai makes the infamous dish even more dimensional. Halvorsen says that the banana blossom’s slightly bitter and astringent nature lends itself well to pad thai due to the way our palates are built. (We have five types of taste buds: bitter, sour, salty, savoury and sweet. Pad thai takes care of all but the bitterness, which is where banana blossoms come in.)
Thai and Indian cuisines often employ banana blossoms differently, but one common denominator is coconut milk, an ingredient that is an inherent part of both regions’ cuisines and is often used to curtail the blossoms’ tart flavour. Banana blossoms can be used in Thai red curry for a vegetarian alternative to chicken. Similarly, a common South Indian curry is made with coconut milk and banana blossoms; what distinguishes these two dishes are the flavours of each region. Thai curries rely on fish sauce and lemongrass, while South Indian curries rely on curry leaves and mustard seeds.
Banana blossoms also offer an alternative to jackfruit for vegans; the starchy, fibrous nature of the blossom lends itself well to shredding. These shreds can then be coated with spices and/or sauces and used as a meat replacement in dishes such as tacos.
Alternatively, banana blossoms can also be used to bulk up meat in a dish. “Chop up [banana blossoms] and… mix it into meat mixtures like ground pork,” says Pailin Chongchitnant, Vancouver-based Thai chef and YouTuber. Whether you’re looking to cut back on your meat consumption or looking for ways to extend the amount of meat you use, banana flowers are the answer.
Where are banana blossoms found in Canada?
Any south Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai or east Asian grocery store is a safe bet. They will often carry both fresh and canned versions. When shopping for fresh blossoms, look for those that have smooth, not wrinkled, skin. While fresh is preferred and the only way to eat banana blossoms raw, pre-cooked canned blossoms are convenient for last-minute recipes.