Banana flowers or banana blossoms are one of those exotic unexpected gifts that comes from growing bananas. They are the blossom that grows on a bunch of bananas and if you have never seen a banana tree, it is likely that you may not have realised they even existed. You find them in good Asian shops - in Dublin, you can buy them in Euroasia in Fonthill Business Park, near Liffey Valley. They are used in stir-fries in India and Thailand and other Asian countries where it is cooked as a vegetable in savoury dishes. Banana flowers are crunchy and nutty and add texture to dishes.
How to store a banana flower
The first thing you need to do when you take your banana flower home if you are not using it immediately is to cover it tightly in cling film or it won't last longer than a day in the fridge.
How to buy banana flowers
Buy banana flowers that are tightly packed and springy, they should be firm and pliable and the outside leaves should be a rich purple with no signs of decay.
How to prepare a banana flower
The sap inside a banana flower can stain surfaces and hands so rub vegetable oil on your hands and work on a newspaper so you don't stain a board (the stain is impossible to remove). Also the sap is an irritant so don't put your hands to your face or eyes. You need to soak the leaves immediately in water which you have acidulated with lemon juice to stop them becoming oxidised (a bit like pears) and to get rid of the bitter sap inside. The banana flower will start going black as soon as you cut it so you need to get it into the lemon water immediately. Remove the outer leaves and discard these are too tough and you should find a halo of little yellow flowers. Remove the central stamen from each floret and discard as this is bitter. You can use the white part so reserve that. Just chop it up and treat it the same as the leaves (see beow). - You can also use pale pink leaves and the white heart that are inside. If you are just using the leaves, cut off part of the stem at the base to make it easier to peel it. When you peel off the internal leaves and come to the centre, you will find the heart of the banana flower, you can slice this or chop it finely. Discard any of the little yellow buds you find as these are bitter. You can eat the banana leaves raw with a spicy condiment or cook them, adding them to stir-fries or soups. In some countries, they are used in salads and the salad is served in the outer dense purple leaves making a lovely presentation.
How to cook a banana flower
To use in a salad or stir-fry: Rinse the leaves, then slice them finely (stack them on top of each other, roll them and cut them into chiffonade like lettuce). Put them in the lemon water (described above, just cold water acidulated with lemon juice to stop the leaves turning black). Make sure the banana flower leaves are submerged and are not exposed to the air. Leave to soak for 20-30 minutes, then rinse, drain and add to stir-fries at the last few minutes and fry until wilted. You can also cut the banana flower into chunks and fry or boil it: remove the outer leaves and the flowers inside and discard them, then cut what is left into quarters or slices and boil until soft (it will look like an artichoke when it is cooked). You can also shred the banana flower into thin shreds (once you have removed the stamen) and add it to stir-fries.
How to reconstitute dried or preserved banana flowers
Dried banana flowers: If you find dried banana flowers, just soak them in cold water until they are soft (10-15 minutes), then rinse and cut and use as normal.