Not Quite Bananas

You know how folks say "My Grandma taught me and I do it the same way she did," implying that Grandma always knew best. Well, maybe not. At least not when it came to prepping banana blossom.

Everyone I talked to told me that banana blossoms are a pain to prep and clean. That the sap stains everything it touches, and blackened fingers are an indication of a family satiated on banana blossoms. To avoid these stains, they said, you must rub oil all over your hands before you touch a banana blossom. Or, in modern times, the suggestion is to wear thin food-safe gloves.

The very first time I prepped banana blossom, I rubbed a little bit of oil on my finger tips, but only because I didn't know what to expect. The next few times I knew what I had to do and didn't bother with any oil. Yes, it's true; you don't need to oil your hands or wear gloves when you're prepping banana blossoms.

All you need is the following: a sharp knife, and a medium pot half-filled with water and the juice of half a lemon.

Prepping a Banana Blossom

  1. Peel away the purple colored bracts to expose the 'hand' of florets. Cut the florets just above the point where they are joined to the axil, separate them and put them in the lemon-water. Continue doing this until the bracts are more white than purple-pink and don't peel away easily.
    A hand
    A hand of florets
  2. Cut the conical tip or immature inflorescence off the central stem or axil, and slice it in half lengthwise. This is the only part that will visibly ooze white sticky sap. Immerse it in the lemon-water, along with the rest of the florets. Let sit overnight or for at least 4 hours. I kept mine in the refrigerator but it's not necessary.
    Tender tip of banana blossom
    Avoid the sticky sap by immersing in lemon-water
  3. Drain the florets and prepare a fresh solution of water and lemon juice.
  4. And here comes the most tedious part of prepping banana blossoms: removing the dark-tipped stigma from mature flowers along with the translucent calyx that covers it. But it goes by quickly if you have some good music playing.
    Untitled
    Four-step easy way to do this!
    1. hold the florets with their inner side facing you.
    2. open up the outermost petal that almost encloses the entire floret.
    3. tug at the stigma (often, mistakenly called the stamen) and pull it away from the outermost petal, separating the translucent calyx from the whorl.
    4. pluck the stigma and calyx from the floret and discard. Soak floret in lemon-water until you are ready to chop.
  5. Chop the florets as fine as you like. I prefer to chop them into ½in pieces and add them to the fresh pot of lemon-water. Slice the conical tip into ½in thin slices and add to the lemon-water. Let sit for about an hour.
    Untitled
    chopped banana florets
  6. Drain chopped florets and use in your cooking as you would have, had you oiled your hands or worn gloves.
Three of my cousins—all far more experienced than me—as well as my niece, all in India, were helping me figure out how to capture the flavors of my childhood, with this banana blossom. My cousins had always chopped the florets and then soaked them overnight in buttermilk. The Saraswat cooking Bible, Rasachandrika, concurred. But this inflorescence is used widely in South-East Asian cuisines and not one of them mentioned buttermilk. They did, however, suggest soaking in lemon-water. Aha! That was easier for me than soaking them in cultured buttermilk or thinned-out yogurt. And guess what? No harm done, only gains! I hate to think of the damage that oil and sticky sap on my fingers would have done to my camera!

Most recipes indicate that soaking in buttermilk or lemon-water is to prevent blackening of the florets. They wouldn't need to be soaked overnight if that were the case. I'd like to hazard a guess and suggest instead that this step is essential as the acidic solution neutralizes the sticky sap.

There are many ways to cook these banana florets. Usili is very popular in Southern Indian cuisine, as are vadas. It is used in sambars, too. I intend to try these recipes in the future but, for now, I was more focused on recreating that very kelfulachi bhaji that my mother made. I am partial to Maharashtrian cuisine, especially when it comes to vegetable sides. The veggies aren't cooked to death, and the seasoning is often a simple yet potent phodni, that allows the true flavor of the vegetables to shine through.

Banana Blossom Bhaji

Kelfulachi Bhaji

Kelfulachi bhaji
kelfulachi bhaji

  • 1 medium banana blossom, prepped and chopped
  • ¼ cup kale vatane (substitute with puy lentils)
  • 2-3 tbsp oil
  • ½ tsp black mustard seeds
  • a pinch asafetida
  • 2 Thai chiles, red or green, chopped
  • 2-3 tsp jaggery, crumbled or brown sugar
  • 1-2 tbsp lemon juice
  • ⅛ cup chopped cilantro, for garnish
  • ⅛ cup shredded fresh coconut, for garnish (optional)
Nim
kale vatane: soaked and dried, in a finite sum game
  1. Prep the banana blossom as described above. You will need to start ahead by at least 4 hours, if not overnight. 
  2. Soak kale vatane overnight or do a hot soak. Either pressure cook or cook in a pot until tender but not mushy, about an hour. (Yes, better to pressure cook them!)
  3. Heat oil in a kadhai and when it shimmers, add black mustard seeds. 
  4. When they turn grey and start to pop, add asafetida.
  5. Add Thai chiles and cover.
  6. Drain chopped banana flowers and add along with salt and 2 tsp jaggery. Toss until combined, and add 1/4 cup water, if required.
  7. Add cooked kale vatane and mix well. Cover and cook on medium-low until the banana flowers are cooked through. They will soften as they cook and absorb the flavors and will no longer taste as astringent. About 15-20 minutes. Stir periodically and, if necessary, add some more water.
  8. Once cooked, adjust seasonings and add more jaggery, if required.
  9. Add lemon juice, garnish with cilantro and coconut, if using. Serve with hot rotis.

cooked banana blossom
fragrant, with a delicate balance of hot, sweet and sour

Notes:
  • Kale vatane may or may not be available at your Indian grocery store. I had some in stock from my last visit to India. Puy lentils are a good substitute, only because they hold their shape and do not become overly mushy like brown lentils. You could substitute with a bean of your choice, too.
  • Banana flowers are quite astringent when raw and retain some of that bite even when cooked. Medha found this less astringent than baby spinach and quite liked the taste. I was rather surprised as this is mostly an acquired taste.
  • Prepping banana flower is the key. I have kept the soaked flowers in my refrigerator for a couple of days without any problems before I cleaned them by removing the stigma and calyx.

I have been high on bananas. My last column for Whole Foods Market Cooking Blog was also about bananas—green bananas, often mistakenly called plantains. Again, it's a very simple recipe!


It's been a while since I have participated in any blogger events. For the most part, I just miss the deadline because of something called real life! But I could not resist sending these Maharashtrian flavors to Preeti's Ruchira Giveaway. I am also sending this to Manasi's very first event, I Must Make That!

Tomorrow, February 13, it will be a year since my friend Raji passed away. I plan to celebrate her life by cooking and posting something from her blog within this next week. If you enjoyed Raji's charm and quick wit, consider joining me so that together we can remember a beautiful person who touched our lives.

16 comments:

Anita said...

I remember cooking with banana blossom a very long time ago. I had plucked it from the garden without being too careful to protect my clothes. Once the white dupatta and salwar came out of the washing it had black stains all over! Quite the disaster, I tell you.

I cook with green bananas often. That too stains the fingers. I just rub a little lime juice (just like you did for the flower!) on my hands and that takes care of the stains!

Are you topped up on kaale vatane from D's visit home? I am almost out. They can be substituted very well with kala chana also - I find the tastes and textures very similar.

notyet100 said...

Have heard a lot about this veggie l..looks delicious,...

Pelicano said...

Coolerz!

Anjali said...

Pretty simple and clean flavors. In Koli cuisine they load this bhaaji with garam masala and I don't like heavily spiced stuff. Yours sounds better. Manisha I was also saying to Preeti of Isingcakes about remembering Raji. Lets post and I am making Brinji in her memory because you had posted about it and that's the way I remember her best from the pics you posted here of your Delhi meet up.

Isingcakes said...

Now this is such a beautiful presentation! I have eaten mochar dalna/ghoto as a child at my bong kakimas' and mashi' but never at my mavshis' etc. I love how you have explained about the whole process of cleaning, peeling, separating and sorting. This is a unique entry indeed for the giveaway! I will prepare something to celebrate Miri's life as well.

Shri said...

Just made the vadas with these. Loved the blossom pictures.

One could also use oil ( any type of cooking oil) on the hands to keep it free from the staining serum.

Soma said...

Lemon juice!! no oil. That sounds more promising and may be I will give them a try. Love this post Manisha. I remember how ma and my grandmas would take out the stigma for the whole bunch of florets in that layer at one go. I could never do that.

(And that was the part I told we ate :) that little white part).

In Bengal, they are chopped and soaked in salt water I think. Never in anything acidic. Then pressure cooked for most of the recipes. I never had it cooked this way. Looks and sounds delicious! Green banana is cooked often... more than the banana blossom.

One year for Raji...praying for her family.

Abhi said...

As an aside, we used to call the separation of stigma as Kavle and Chimnya. Remove the crows and keeps the sparrows(?) also a pinch or half teaspoon of Kala/goda masala was added to the recipe.

Mandira said...

Manisha, when I was pregnant this time round, I was craving this and ended up making Mochar ghonto this past year. We soak the flowers in turmeric water and then cook it in any number of combinations. Love this presentation :)

Poornima Krishnan said...

What a lovely post,the pictures, the recipe! A must try recipe.

Poornima Krishnan said...

I have always made it this way ....grind coarse some coconut,shallots,red chillies and jeera. Season fry the flower chopped, add paste cover cook 10 minutes. Must try your way now.

Manisha Pandit said...

Anita, slow down, you crazy child! If you hadn't been in the wild rush that you always are in, you would not have ruined a perfectly good white dupatta and salwar! The green bananas did not stain my hands either. No citric acid. My sweet friend Francie had told me that she peeled plantains for tostones under running water. They are easier to peel and don't stain your hands. Maybe try that next time? You're so quick that there won't be much water wasted ;-)

The kale vatane are from a previous visit. I have kala chana and will try using that instead. Thanks!

notyet100, it is, thanks! You should try it!

Pel, refrigeratorz!

Anjali, adding garam / goda / kala masala are variations of this basic dish. And, thank you! For joining me in celebrating Raji!

Isingcakes, kiti til-gul khalale? Just kidding! I'm glad you reminded me of mochar ghonto. That's on my must-try list, too! I'm so glad you think it's worthy of your event. And thank you for joining me to celebrate Raji!

Shri, vadas are on my list! As for using oil, the whole purpose of this post was to avoid using oil and proving Grandma wrong! ;-D

Soma, I had to do it several times to make sure it wasn't just a fluke that the banana blossom did not bleed sap! Entire hand of florets in one go? Now that's superhuman! I can't compete with Grandma there! I have to do it floret by floret!

A lot of recipes call for pressure cooking the florets. I'm not sure why. I like them to have a slight crunch instead of pure mush.

Make something for Raji, if you can? Thanks!


Abhi, what? Kavle ani chimnya?! This is the first time I've heard that! Very amusing! And, yes, adding goda masala is a variation of this recipe.

Mandira, that's interesting that you soak the florets in turmeric water. What do you think that does to the florets? Do you have a recipe for mochar ghonto on your blog?

Poornima, I like the idea of a spicy coconut paste! Now I have one more way to make it! Thank you!

Nagalakshmi V said...

this post has almost convinced me to buy a banana blossom. almost...

Anita said...

But if I slow down, as you ask me to, I will waste more water! :-) I think I will try it next time. I make green banana erriseri - very good it is too!

cybergabi said...

This sounds delish. I don't think I've ever had banana blossoms before, not even in India. Curious how they taste. And it looks very pretty too!

Manisha Pandit said...

Nags, dang! I hope you do try it out. It's really not as tedious or tiresome as they make it out to be!

Anita, you could peel them in a pot of water, holding the bananas under the water, maybe? I love erisseri!

Gabi, it is an acquired taste as the blossoms are very astringent. But this recipes balances that with the jaggery and lemon juice.

I haven't had the raw salad but the next time I am in Thailand (in my dreams!) or in Viet Nam, I intend to try it their banana blossom salad.