Flowers may be beautiful, but they're not usually appetizing. Sure, nasturtiums are hip in fancy restaurants, but they're primarily used as a garnish. Granted, fried squash blossoms are incredible, but the point remains: flowers are usually reserved for looking at, not masticating.
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But the banana flower—also known as the banana blossom, or, my favorite, vazhaipoo—is a flower that is much better served on a plate than in a vase. This is half because banana flowers just aren't very... well... floral; they aren't the prettiest attendees at the flower dance. But it's also because banana flowers taste really, really good.
Banana flowers are, quite literally, the flower of the banana tree. They are very large, and usually weigh more than a pound.
The blossoms from the banana tree resemble artichokes in many ways. They are physically very similar: a luxurious and silky heart in the middle of the blossom, surrounded by tougher outer leaves, called bracts. Just like with an artichoke, these bracts are edible, but the heart is where the real culinary virtue lies. It should come as no surprise, then, that the banana flower heart tastes rather similar to an artichoke heart.
Banana flowers may be delicious and fun to eat, but they're a royal pain in the butt to prepare. In order to get to the heart of the blossom, each bract has to be removed. There's no way to do this en masse, so they have to be pulled off one by one, like when removing the bracts from an artichoke.
However, within seconds of being removed, these bracts oxidize and turn a charcoal color that is the antithesis of appetizing. In order to keep the flower appetizing, you must keep a bowl of lemon or vinegar water nearby, and immediately submerge the bracts in it after tearing them off. This retains their beautiful pink and white color. Alternatively, you can immediately rub them with a lemon.
With the difficult part of preparation handled, it's time to prepare them for eating. Generally, the bracts are steamed (keeping with the artichoke theme), but the hearts are often eaten raw, and are a very common salad ingredient in many cuisines.
Their uses, however are endless, and vary depending on what cuisine you're eating (banana blossoms are common in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka, among other places). In addition to salads, the hearts are often used in stir-fries, soups, curries, and meat dishes.
In addition to the heart and bracts, you can also eat the infant bananas found on the blossom, though these do have a bitter flavor.
So banana flowers are unique, uncommon (at least in the United States), easy to cook with, and delicious. What other merits could they possibly have? Nutrition! Just like the fruit they ultimately bear, banana flowers are highly nutritious. They are packed with iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C. But more interestingly, in the regions where they are common, banana flowers are a very popular remedy for menstrual cramps. Go figure!
Banana flowers aren't easy to find stateside, and they come and go with the seasons. You'll often find them at Asian specialty markets, and sometimes even at farmer's markets!
Have you ever eaten banana flowers?