Banana stem or vazhaithandu (Tamil) would appear regularly in our home when I was growing up in Mumbai. My grandmother would buy this from the Vasai wala, special vegetable vendors who would come home with two baskets hanging from a pole that they would carry on their shoulders, selling only bananas and related produce. She would cook the diced banana stem with moong dal as a simple poriyal to be had with rasam and rice.
Recently, I joined my aunt and cousin for an unplanned lunch and they quickly diced up a banana stem and made a delicious salad, with some coconut, lime juice and a tadka (tempering) of mustard seeds, chillies, salt and sugar. My grandmother had never used banana stem raw and I was surprised at how good the salad tasted.
Cutting the banana stem requires patience and it’s the main reason I haven’t been buying it often. The shiny white outer sheath needs to be sliced off and discarded. Once you reach the inner fibrous layer, cut the stem into round slices, twisting up any fibres you may encounter in your index finger. Pile up four-five slices and dice them finely. Chopped banana stem tends to brown quickly due to oxidation. To prevent this, soak the chopped pieces in a bowl of diluted buttermilk or water with one-two teaspoons of lime juice.
Banana stem is also called banana pith, which is a more accurate term as the stem is a pseudo one, made from the coming together of leaf sheaths. Banana pith has a very low glycemic index (blood sugar increasing capacity) compared to the ripe fruit. It is mildly flavoured, with a crunchy texture, high water and fibre content. It cooks to a unique chewy-soft texture and can be easily eaten raw too. Juice extracted from banana stem has been found to be useful in alleviating urinary complaints and in kidney stone treatment.
I was fascinated to find out that the fibre from the banana pith is used to make lamp wicks, paper products, slippers, hats, garden growbags, fishing nets and bedsheets. A quick search on the fabrics made from the fibre led me to a whole selection of “silk” saris called vazhainaar pattu (banana fibre silk) online. The saris have a silk-like sheen and are a great option for those who want to wear vegan silk.
The outer layers of the banana stem can be used for a beautiful floating lamp arrangement in an urli. This idea is inspired by the Boita Bandana festival, celebrated in Odisha on the day of Kartik Purnima, in which miniature boats fashioned from banana stems are loaded with lamps and betel leaves are set to float in the nearest water bodies.
Banana stem salad
300g piece of banana stem
1 European cucumber
1 small carrot, peeled
2-3 spoons pomegranate arils
Half cup soaked or sprouted green moong
1 tbsp lime juice
A pinch of salt
2 tbsp grated coconut
2 tsp oil
Half tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp urad dal
1 sprig curry leaves, chopped
1 green chilli, sliced
Finely dice the banana stem (explained in the previous recipe) and keep it soaked in water with lemon juice or diluted buttermilk. Cut the cucumber and carrot into a similar fine dice. In a large bowl, combine chopped cucumber, carrot, pomegranate and green moong. Drain the banana stem, squeezing out all the excess water.
Add to the bowl. Season with salt and toss well. Add lime juice and grated coconut and combine. In a small pan or a tempering ladle, heat the oil. Add mustard seeds, urad dal, curry leaves and the green chillies. Wait for the mustard seeds to splutter and the dal to turn golden brown. Transfer over the salad and combine well. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.
Note: You can also lightly steam the chopped banana stem and soaked green moong and add to this salad instead of using it raw.
Banana Stem Moong Poriyal
Half cup yellow moong dal
500g piece of banana stem
2-3 cups diluted buttermilk (to soak)
1-2 tbsp coconut oil
1 sprig curry leaves
1-2 dried red chillies
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 tsp split urad dal
A pinch of asafoetida
1 tsp salt
1-2 tsp jaggery powder or sugar
Half tsp turmeric powder
2-3 tbsp grated coconut
Soak the moong dal in a bowl of water for one hour. Slice off the shiny outer layers of the banana stem and discard until the fibrous pith inside is visible. Cut this inner pith into 1cm-thick circles and follow the process mentioned earlier. Keep immersed in diluted buttermilk until you are ready to cook.
In a pan, heat the oil. Add curry leaves, dried red chillies, mustard seeds, urad dal and asafoetida. Fry until the mustard seeds splutter. Drain the moong dal and chopped banana stem and add to the tempering in the pan. Season with salt and stir well to combine. Add turmeric and jaggery powder. Combine and continue to stir for one-two minutes over a medium high flame. Reduce the flame, cover and cook for 15-20 minutes, sprinkling some water into the pan every five minutes to aid cooking. The dish is done when the banana stem is cooked through.
Garnish with grated coconut. Serve hot with rice and rasam.
Also read | A bunch of ways to cook raw bananas
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is Everyday Superfoods. @saffrontrail