After my last experience with Indian bitter melon, I was a little nervous to experiment with my next ingredient. Just like the last time, I scoured the shelves of Berkeley Bowl, looking for something intriguing but not too intimidating. I settled on a purple, prehistoric-looking ingredient known as a banana flower.
The banana flower is also known as a banana blossom or heart, but frankly, I didn't even know banana trees had flowers. My preliminary research told me that it's an ingredient commonly used in Vietnamese and Thai cooking. It can be eaten raw or cooked, and it happens to be a great source of vitamins A and C. Banana flower also happens to be a common ingredient in Ayurvedic cooking, and it's believed to help heal menstrual pain (major bonus!).
As the outer leaves, or bracts, are pulled back, a row of long, black buds reveal themselves. I almost screamed after peeling back the first bract, because the buds were completely bizarre and off-putting. But the fact that those buds actually turn into bananas put me at ease. Once I pulled off enough bracts, I was left with a tender white heart, ready to be sliced up. To find out what I did with this strange ingredient, keep reading.
Like artichokes, the banana flower turns black when it is cut open and exposed to the air, so it's important to quickly soak them in water with citrus or vinegar. And when I sliced up the heart, I found it had a really unappetizing stringy quality to it. The slices stuck together with something that looked and felt like a really sticky spider web. (A twitter poll quickly assured me that the way to avoid this is to slice the flower very thinly.)
I quickly came up with a relatively easy recipe, inspired by recipes I found online, that utilized things I had in my kitchen. Poached chicken breast, white vinegar, lime juice, onions, and fresh mint were the key components that went into the banana flower salad. If I had fish sauce on hand, I would have incorporated some of that to give more flavor. I used chili pepper flakes to give the salad a little kick, but I think a chili jam would have worked better.
Ultimately, I thought this salad tasted really fresh and interesting. I loved all of the flavors going on, especially that of the sliced banana flower. The only way I can think to describe its taste is that it reminded me of an unripe banana peel, both in flavor and texture. And it actually complemented the mint and chicken really nicely. Would I cook with it again? Possibly, but only because I'm interested in its flavor when cooked. Otherwise, I'm not sure that it was worth all of the prepping.
Have you ever eaten or cooked with banana flower?
1 firm banana flower
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 yellow onion, sliced
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup of fresh mint, sliced into a chiffonade
4 tablespoons white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
- Prepare the banana flower: Peel back the purple leaves, and remove the buds until you find yourself with the white heart.
- Reserve two of the purple leaves for serving.
- Cut off the stem and cut the heart in half. Thinly slice each half and immediately place in a large bowl with water and the juice of half a lime.
- Poach the chicken: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt and chicken breast.
- Cook for about 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and comes apart easily.
- Shred the chicken with a fork and set aside.
- Cook the onions: Heat up canola oil over medium-high heat in a large pan. Drop onion slices in oil and let them fry up until crispy
- Once brown and crispy, remove onions from oil and dry on a paper towel.
- Put everything together: In a large bowl, combine vinegar, sugar, salt, chili flakes, and lime juice. Add mint, shredded chicken, and sliced banana flower to the bowl and toss well.
- Serve salad in the two purple leaves, top with crispy onions and drizzle with soy sauce. Garnish with mint.
Serves 2 to 4.