Walking down the wide rows of the Mercado de Medellín in Mexico City last summer, I was mesmerized by a vendor selling six-foot-long banana leaves. He trimmed the stalks, then lifted and waved out the thick, waxy sheets like a salesman shaking dust from his Persian rugs, before stacking them neatly.
I’d never cooked with banana leaves before, so I vowed to come home and familiarize myself with them. Cooks throughout the Indian subcontinent, Latin America, Southeast Asia and Central Africa make use of banana leaves in the kitchen. The leaves release water, trap steam and ultimately protect their precious contents from drying out as they cook. And when you unwrap a banana-leaf parcel, it releases a sublime tropical aroma that will make you mad with hunger.
Over the last year, I’ve wrapped banana leaves around dainty business-card-size tamales, rice with coconut milk and lamb rubbed with chile paste and cooked in a huge, deep pit. But the best banana-leaf-wrapped dish I’ve tried is a Parsi one: Patra Ni Machhi, or flaky white fish coated with a spicy coconut chutney. I learned about it from Niloufer Ichaporia King, a 73-year-old anthropologist, culinary scholar and extraordinary cook. She herself is Parsi, descended from the followers of the prophet Zoroaster, who settled in India after fleeing persecution in Iran more than a thousand years ago. We first met several years ago at one of her vibrant Parsi New Year dinners in Berkeley. As we toasted papadums side by side, she described Parsi cooking as a ‘‘magpie cuisine,’’ layering Indian, British, European and New World influences and flavors atop our shared Persian roots.
Patra Ni Machhi is one of Ichaporia King’s favorite dishes too. ‘‘It does represent some effort to find the banana leaves,’’ she said, ‘‘but it’s worth it.’’ She recommends steaming the fish parcels on the stove, but I find the soft lap of wood smoke to be a natural complement to the sweet, floral flavor the banana leaf imparts. And happily, grilling means there’s one fewer pan to wash.
Grilling used to make me nervous, but then I learned to view the fire as just another source of heat, no different from a stove or an oven. Did I spend my day hunched over at the waist eyeballing the gas flame when I cooked on the stove? No. So I didn’t need to spend my time worrying about what the fire was doing either. In each case, the clues I need happen farther up, on the surface of and within the food that is cooking.
So first, prepare your grill. Light the coals — I prefer lump charcoal to briquettes for better flavor — and let them burn. Once they’re gray with ash, allow the grill to preheat and the flames to die down. Then, obey the most important rule of grilling: Never cook directly over flame. Flames will leave behind a terrible sooty taste and burned spots on the surface of any food they’ve touched. To make cooking as simple as possible, think of your coal bed as a series of stove burners set to different temperatures. Rake the coals to create two or three distinct temperature zones ranging from blazing hot (more coals) to moderately hot (fewer coals) to ambient (no coals). Then you can move the parcels from burner to burner as needed. Use the same sensory cues you use when cooking food in a pan — the smell and look of food as it browns, how an ingredient shrinks or tightens, the way it feels to the touch and how loudly the sizzles at it hits the grill or begins to render fat or drip juice — to guide you.
For the timid or uninitiated, leaf-wrapped foods offer an ideal and gentle introduction to fire cooking. Liberated from the need to worry about whether the fish is sticking to the grill or burning, pay attention instead to the rate of browning on the surface of the leaf, which you’ll get to discard whether it chars or remains pale. When juices begin to drip from the packets, you’ll know the temperatures within are climbing. Wait a minute or so, then unwrap a parcel. Check the fish. Is it firm and flaking apart at the touch, no longer translucent but opaque? If so, you’re done. If not, rewrap the fish and return it to the grill for another minute.
Serve hot with basmati rice and grilled scallions. Let each diner delight in breathing in that gust of grassy, aromatic steam as she unwraps her own parcel. Nothing else will deliver the heady flavor of a banana leaf.
At least, that’s what I thought until Ichaporia King casually revealed that it was challenging to source fresh banana leaves when she moved to the Bay Area in 1971. One day, she said, she spotted a Strelitzia alba plant (a variety of bird of paradise) among the landscaping at her neighborhood hospital. Its familiar leaves appeared to make it a viable substitute.
Somewhat alarmed, I asked her how she knew the leaves would work. How could you substitute such a vital part of the dish? As confident as I am about substituting one heat source for another, the thought of swapping out the banana leaf for something else caused me utter panic.
“The perfume was fine,’’ she calmly responded. “The leaves were perfectly usable.” She added, with a chuckle: “I often brought someone very dignified with me to divert attention. Then I’d cut leaves from the back of the plant so nobody would notice.”