Banana leaves are the leaves of the banana bush, a tropical plant in the genus Musa. The leaves are used in cooking and also decoratively in many tropical and subtropical cultures, because they are readily available. In areas outside the tropics, banana leaves can sometimes be found frozen in Asian and Latin American grocery stores, and they are also available dried. Some florists will also order fresh banana leaves, but they tend to be expensive.
The most common use for the banana leaf is culinary. Banana leaves are used in serving and preparing foods in numerous countries. In places like India and Southeast Asia, it is not uncommon for a whole banana leaf to serve as a plate. The food is artfully arranged on the banana leaf and eaten with the hands or small breads. Shreds of banana leaf may also be used as a garnish, especially in more upscale restaurants which want to celebrate their cultural heritage without discomfiting guests.
The banana leaf also makes an ideal wrapper for foods. In China, sticky rice is wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed before serving. The leaves are also used for wrapping tamales in tropical regions of South America. Whole banana leaves may also be used to wrap a large roast, as is the case with Polynesian roast pig. Other Asian nations make a wide assortment of dishes with banana leaf wrappers, especially in tropical regions. In all of these instances, the banana leaf adds a subtle flavor to the food, and also makes the food conveniently portable.
When a banana leaf is used for cooking, the tough edges and central stem are removed. Many frozen and dried banana leaves have already been destemmed, but the edges will still require trimming. To use frozen banana leaves, run the leaves under lukewarm water to allow them to thaw before employing them in a dish. Dried banana leaves can be rehydrated in warm water before use. In all cases, the banana leaf should be handled gently to avoid cracking or breakage.
When used decoratively, banana leaves are almost always used whole, with their stems on. At parties and resorts with tropical themes, the banana leaf is a frequent fixture. Both dried and fresh banana leaves are used for this purpose, depending on how long the decorations need to last. Banana leaves may also be used as a thatch to protect people from mild inclement weather such as tropical drizzle.