Some human ways of doing things, whether in the factory or at home, appear quite magical. Indeed, as Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1962: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Everyone has their own preferences in choosing what is mystical. In my list of things otherworldly, I include the making of steel—all that golden, liquid iron reacting with oxygen from heated air in a blast furnace, heated to within a fifth of the sun’s surface temperature, to produce a material that is the substratum of modern civilisation.
As a boy, I spent endless hours outside Bengaluru’s Cantonment railway station, where we lived for five years, and I never forgot the clanking, hissing and great sighs let out by those old iron monsters as the coal in their boilers heated water until it became steam, which drove pistons, which drove the wheels. There is something remarkable about the visual complexity of a steam locomotive that the diesels and electrics that followed could never match.
Perhaps that is why I am fascinated still by the use of steam in my kitchen to produce food. It is a simple process that uses what is called moist heat, water heated until it evaporates, with the resulting steam carefully trapped inside a vessel to cook food in the gentlest possible manner, leaving it soft and moist and full of nutrients which aren’t leached away. There is something primal, simple and elemental about the art of steam cooking. All it needs is a pot and a steamer, and there is none of the violence of the pan or the wok or the griddle.
The most common steamed food that we eat in south India is, of course, the idli, that pillowy—if done right—rice dumpling, love for which has spread across the land. But one of my great favourites is using the banana leaf to steam food. The distinctive banana frond is everywhere in the south and its use in cooking follows a uniquely Indian and global tradition.
From the Pacific islands to North Africa to inner Laos to south, east and west India, the banana leaf is an invaluable aid to steaming food. Among my favourites are the Parsi patra-ni-machchi, a pomfret stuffed with green chutney and steamed; the Bengali maacher paturi, fish marinated in a mustard paste and steamed; and the Assamese version called bhapot diya maach, which sometimes uses lemongrass or poppy seed with the mustard.
Fish is a family favourite, and particularly given to steaming, given how quickly it cooks—and steam leaves it soft, fragrant and flaky. But you can steam a variety of vegetables and meat as well. Pork is steamed in banana leaves by the Mexicans (they also do lamb), the Hawaiians, and the Lao, and they do complex, steamed chicken in the Maghreb and elsewhere.
Banana leaf withstands the heat generated by steam admirably, wilting at most from a bright green to a dull grey green. The leaf has antioxidants and anti-bacterial properties, and all that goodness leaches into the food being cooked in it. Before you use a banana leaf, run the glossy side over a flame to make it supple. The process also releases the leaf’s natural oils, which release their inherent fragrance and make the leaf bright and glossy.
I used chicken this time because there was a lot of it in the freezer, and because I had never done it before. After I stuck in all those parcels over the boiling water, I had little to do, except to finally lift the lid. It took a little longer than fish but when I opened and stuck my nose in, my spectacles were clouded by the hot, fragrant steam. The chicken was soft and transformed, with little intervention. Almost like magic.
GINGER-LEMONGRASS-SOY CHICKEN STEAMED IN BANANA LEAF
500g chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
2 tsp light soy sauce
3 banana leaves
For the paste
1 onion, roughly chopped
6-7 garlic cloves
1-2 red chillies
2 tbsp lemongrass
1 tbsp ginger
Sesame oil (if you wish, drizzle half a tsp of oil in each packet)
In a blender, roughly process ginger and lemongrass. Add onion, garlic and chillies. Process until fine. Marinate chicken with this paste. Add salt to taste and the soy sauce.
Wash the banana leaves, dry with kitchen cloth. Cut away the hard edges. Put two large tablespoons of the mixture on the leaf. Fold lengthwise and then hold both ends and fold to the centre until you get a parcel that completely envelops the chicken. Stitch the leaf closed with a toothpick or tie with cooking twine. Place the parcels in a steaming pot with boiling water—an idli steamer will do. Cook on high heat for 30 minutes, adding more boiling water if needed. You can open one parcel and check if the chicken is done. Beware, though, of the heat from the steam, which can scald you. Remove parcels and serve hot.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11