How to Cook Anything in a Banana Leaf

Sturdy and sustainable, full of fragrance and flavor, banana leaves can steam, roast, bake and more.

Banana leaves

Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

After an almost 24-hour journey from San Francisco to Tampaksiring, Indonesia, there was nothing I desired more than a pillow and some shut-eye.

Jet-lagged and a bit delirious, I didn’t think there was anything that could invigorate me, until my Airbnb host presented me with an assortment of little banana-leaf cones on a plate. I picked one up, and as I pulled back one of the green strips, a fluffy parcel of perfectly cooked rice painted with the yellow glow of turmeric slowly began to reveal itself from the spiral of leaf encasing it. The jolt of pleasure and surprise that the dish gave me stayed with me when I returned home, spurring my curiosity about how I might begin to cook with banana leaves in my own kitchen.

What are banana leaves?

Banana leaves are the enormous, waxy fronds of the banana tree. Bananas originated in Southeast Asia and spread across Africa before making their way to the Caribbean and South America, and today, everywhere banana trees are grown, banana leaves are used in cooking. The leaves are not eaten but are used to wrap and then bake, roast, and steam all kinds of dishes, imparting a subtly sweet, grassy aroma.

Baking with banana leaves

Woldy Reyes, the founder of Woldy Kusina, a Filipino catering company in Brooklyn, shared with me his recipe for Bibingka Banana Bread, his spin on traditional bibingka, which in the Philippines is a sweet and savory rice cake baked in banana leaves. The leaves, he explained, help give the cake a moist crumb and a kiss of banana aroma. His advice for cooking with banana leaves? Start with an open mind. “Embrace the banana leaf,” he says. “It’s a great way to learn to work with it as an ingredient.”

Roasting in banana leaves

To make his Mexican-style barbacoa, Chicago chef Jonathan Zaragoza bathes beef chuck in an aromatic adobo, swaddles it in banana leaves, and then bakes it in an oven. In New York City, chef Vijay Kumar of Semma restaurant shared how to pan-roast banana leaf–wrapped fish fillets to make his Kerala Meen Pollichathu (Roasted Fish in Banana Leaf).

Steaming with banana leaves

In communities throughout Southeast Asia, countless sweet and savory dishes, from Vietnamese bánh tét to Chinese zongzi, are steamed in banana leaves. Amy Domrongchai, a restaurateur (and grandmother of F&W Editorial Fellow Alexandra Domrongchai), shared her family recipe for Kai Hor Bai Tong (Chicken in Banana Leaves). For Domrongchai, banana leaves were ever-present in her kitchen as a child growing up in Thailand. “In my family, we used the leaves every day. I had banana trees around the house, and we’d grab them and cook,” she says. “With fish, vegetables, or curry, when wrapped in banana leaves, once you open it, it just all smells so good!” In Mexico, banana leaves are a popular option for wrapping tamales, where they give each tamal a dense, custard-like texture and herbaceous fragrance.

Serving food on banana leaves

As much as they’re a staple in kitchens around the world, banana leaves also mark moments of celebration. For Onam, the largest festival marking the end of monsoon season and the welcoming of the harvest in Kerala, India, a multicourse vegetarian banquet is served on a large banana leaf as part of the celebration. In Filipino culture, kamayan, meaning “by hand” in Tagalog, is a traditional feast eaten without utensils and served on a table covered entirely in banana leaves.

In an era when a new cooking technology seems to sprout up every few weeks, there’s something inordinately satisfying about cooking with an ingredient that connects me to the basics—that lets me turn an old leaf over, one that brings me back to the foundations of cooking.

Where to find banana leaves

If you have a local Asian or Mexican grocery store, check the freezer aisles for a package of frozen banana leaves. (You may also see them labeled as plantain leaves.) Banana leaves can also be ordered online from retailers like and You may find fresh banana leaves, but frozen are more readily available and a bit easier to work with. One pound of frozen banana leaves costs around $4.

How to prepare banana leaves

Banana leaves can reach up to six feet in length and almost two feet in width. They’re sold folded up, with the center rib removed, and should be handled gently to avoid tearing. Frozen banana leaves should be thawed before using. To thaw them quickly, run them under hot water for 5 to 8 minutes. Once thawed, cut them into the dimensions the recipe calls for, and carefully and thoroughly clean them by wiping them down with a paper towel or clean cloth to remove any dirt.

How to store banana leaves

Fold up any unused fresh or thawed frozen banana leaves, and store them in an airtight plastic bag. Banana leaves will keep in the refrigerator for about a week and in the freezer for up to six months. Keeping leaves wrapped in plastic is crucial to prevent them from drying out. Banana leaves may be composted after use.


The following recipes demonstrate how to roast, bake, and steam using banana leaves.

01 of 06

Kālua Pork

Kalua Pork
Photo by Christopher Testani / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Prissy Lee

A Hawaiian classic, kālua pork becomes melt-in-your-mouth tender with just two simple ingredients and a low-and-slow cook inside a blanket of banana leaves. Serve it with Sheldon Simeon’s Mac Salad and white rice for a complete and hearty meal.

02 of 06

Mac Salad

Mac Salad

Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Ali Ramee / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

Especially tender macaroni is the key to this Hawaiian side dish’s ultra-creamy texture: Cook the noodles well beyond al dente so they absorb the rich mayonnaise. Chef Sheldon Simeon’s version of the plate-lunch staple incorporates tender pieces of russet potato with hearty boiled eggs and shredded carrots.

03 of 06

Kerala Meen Pollichathu (Roasted Fish in Banana Leaves)

Kerala Meen Pollichathu (Roasted Fish in Banana Leaves)

Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

In Kerala, banana leaves are a go-to for cooking marinated pearl spot fish. At Semma, in New York City, chef Vijay Kumar offers an interpretation of the dish, serving whole wild-caught sea bass for a dramatic table-side presentation. Here, for a home-cook version of that dish, easily accessible sea bass fillets are encased in banana leaf parcels. An aromatic and bright masala, layered with fenugreek, ginger, shallots, Thai chiles, and curry leaves and fortified with creamy coconut milk, cooks with the fish inside the banana-leaf packets to form a lush sauce.

04 of 06

Barbacoa des Res (Beef Barbacoa)

Barbacoa de Res

Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

Classic barbacoa customarily involves pit-cooking a whole animal in agave leaves. Chef Jonathan Zaragoza adapts this traditional technique for the oven by slow- roasting adobo-marinated beef chuck and cheeks in toasted banana leaves. The leaves deliver earthy flavor and protect the meat from drying out.

05 of 06

Kai Hor Bai Tong (Chicken in Banana Leaves)

Kai Hor Bai Tong (Chicken in Banana Leaves)

Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

In her riff on kai hor bai toey, a fried dish of chicken in pandan leaf, Amy Domrongchai wraps marinated chicken in banana leaves and roasts them. The leaves impart fragrance and lock in moisture, while the handground, garlicky lemongrass-ginger paste gives punchy flavor to the meat.

06 of 06

Bibingka Banana Bread

Bibingka Banana Bread

Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

This dessert merges the salty-sweet Filipino rice cake, bibingka, with a classic American quick bread for a new sweet treat. The crisp, caramelized crust reveals a pleasantly chewy and banana-forward interior. Banana leaves play two roles here: During baking, they’re a vehicle for creating the moist crumb and fruity aroma, and they also serve as a verdant loaf-pan liner that ensures easy removal after baking.

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