Nature has had millions of years to come up with perfect natural packaging solutions — brilliant designs made from elements as simple as water, sun and nutrients that keep liquids wet, protect cargo during transportation, and prevent mold or insects from getting in. The purpose of our Packaging the Future series is to highlight how we can use nature’s examples to make low-impact designs for better packaging, and so far I’ve focused more on the pipe-dream than the practical. This week is different; banana leaves are a packaging solution that has existed for thousands of years, still exists today, and that could benefit the environment by simply expanding their use to new areas.
Traditionally, the leaves of the banana tree are used most often as (quite dynamic and attractive) serving vessels for everyday meals in South Indian and Filipino cuisine. Hindus and Buddhists both use the leaves for religious ceremonies and offerings, and the fully biodegradable and bright green leaves are used as trays of sorts. But that’s not all!
Banana leaves are said to impart a special flavor to foods and can even be used to steam food, especially cha lua, a Vietnamese sausage. Banana leaf rice is a dish unto itself in South Indian cooking, and it’s usually served with a vegetarian curry.
Lead photo by Madhawa Habarakada
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)