The banana flower is a large, dark purple-red blossom that grows from the end of a bunch of bananas. Its sizable bracts, or leaves, snugly enclose delicate, sweetly scented male flowers. The female flowers, which do not require fertilization to become fruit, grow farther up the stem from the male flowers.
The banana flower is treated in several Asian and tropical cuisines as a vegetable. It is known in Japan as banana no tsubomi, in Thailand as dok kluai, in Indonesia as jantung pisang, in China as shang chao fua, in Sri Lanka as kehel mal, and in India as kere kafool. These terms are variously translated as “banana blossom,” “banana heart,” due to the flower's physical resemblance to that organ, or “plantain blossom.”
Once the tougher, darker outer bracts are pulled away, the paler and more tender inner leaves are used in a number of dishes, prepared in a variety of ways. A fresh, tender banana flower may be sliced and served raw, as in Thailand, where it is often accompanied by the hot and spicy dip called nam prik. It is also served simmered in soup or fried with thin noodles.
Other Asian and Indian cuisines add the sliced banana flower to meat stews, stir-fries, soups, and rice or noodle combinations. It is also used in cold salads, with the salad mixture presented to the diner in one of the large purple-red outer bracts.
Short of plucking them directly from banana plants, look for banana flowers in Asian and Indian markets. When choosing a flower, select one that is firm and fresh looking, with no wilting. The outer bracts should overlap tightly, have good coloring, and be free from visible blemishes or cuts. If not to be used right away, the banana flower may be covered in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator.
Many cooks familiar with this material suggest wearing gloves or coating the hands with cooking oil prior to working with it. The cut ends of the flower leak a sap that will stain skin and other surfaces black. The precaution of rubbing the hands with cooking oil makes cleanup easier.
The entire banana flower may be steamed whole. The tough outer bracts are removed first, then the flower is steamed for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until tender. If desired, the flower may be steamed in the microwave. Place the cleaned and trimmed banana flower on a microwave-safe plate with 1 to 2 tablespoons (15 to 30 ml) of water, cover with plastic wrap, and microwave for five minutes at a time, until tender. When the banana flower is cool enough to handle, unwrap and slice.
Banana flowers are considered to be a good source of vitamins A and C. It is traditionally believed to be beneficial as a lactating agent, and is also believed to help relieve painful menstruation.