Cooking and eating with banana leaves is such a common practice that it has even earned its own tradition. According to Wikipedia, “In Malaysia, to show your appreciation after a satisfying meal, fold the banana leaf towards you (i.e. inwards) to signify that the meal was good. Folding the opposite direction (i.e. upwards/away from you) signifies that the meal was not satisfying.”
Food is served on the leaves not only because it makes for a lovely presentation, but because it is thought that an enzyme on the leaf, which is broken down by the hot food placed up on it, is actually released into the food, and aids in digestion. Outside of Indian and Asian food, however, the possibilities for banana leaves really open up, as they can be used for cooking all sorts of dishes that one would normally use aluminum foil or parchment paper for (though banana leaves are a bit porous, so it’s a good idea to put them in a baking dish so they won’t leak in your oven).
The leaves can also be used in a BBQ in the same way; wrap potatoes or meat to grill or steam as you would if you were using foil, or use as a mat for smaller items that could fall through the leaf.
Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (MNN.com)