It always seems fascinating to me, how certain food memories have a domino effect on my thoughts. Each link of the culinary chain triggering the sights, smells, textures and tastes of a similar one in the past.
It happened to me a few months ago as I sat down on a rickety old plastic stool in front of a food stall in Hanoi’s chaotic Dong Xuan Market for a mid-day snack. I soon learned that in Vietnam, the crunchy inner core of the banana tree stem is an essential component of the fresh-herbs-and-veggies plate that accompanies the utterly delicious northern crab-and-noodle soup called bun rieu cua.
Biting into the toothsome, snow-white disks of the blanched banana stem, took me back, not just to Butuan in The Philippines where it is added to a chicken stew called binanihan, but also to the faded grandeur of Yangon’s Rangoon Tea House.
It was at this vestige of Myanmar’s colonial past, in the summer of 2018, that I had had my very first taste of the country’s uncrowned national dish of mohingya. Besides containing an entire kitchen cabinet’s worth of ingredients like rice noodles, shredded cat fish, shrimp paste, the lemongrass and turmeric-redolent broth of this comforting fish noodle soup also has chopped bits of the aforementioned banana stem for that crunch factor.
This, in turn, teleported me to my year-long stint living and working in Chennai from 2011-2012. I remembered making my way through the meandering gullies of Rajaji Road in the commercial hub of the city called Parry’s Corner to reach a tiny spot called Burma Bazaar for my weekly fix of a very similar soup. Called vazhaithandu, this scrumptious banana stem soup is said to be a local, vegetarian adaptation of mohingya that the Burmese refugees who populated this area of Chennai brought with them.
Rich in fibre and low in carb and fat, the delicious, nutritious soup and even the juice of the banana stem in raw form is said to be good for weight loss, and the treatment of high blood pressure and kidney stones. This is because it is rich in minerals like iron, potassium and vitamin B6, making it a veritable superfood.
In both, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the banana stem is put to even more good use. In the former, dishes such as a stir fry called vazhaithandu poriyal, vazhaithandu kootu (banana stem cooked with lentils), vazahaithandu thoran (banana stem tempered and garnished with coconut) are very popular. While in Bengali cuisine, the stem is called thor and can be found in the more-ish thor-er ghonto or banana stem sabzi as well as the mustard oil and mustard paste enhanced stir fry called thor chechki.
In Assam, kol posola is a popular dish prepared with the inner part of banana shoots. The banana stem’s bark is peeled off and the tender core section is chopped into little pieces and mixed with other ingredients like onions, garlic, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and fenugreek seeds. Meats like duck and pork are also cooked with banana stem added for additional textural and taste heft.
Grown mostly deep in the forests—from South America to Asia—many palm tree varieties (like peach palm, coconut palm, açaí palm, and sabal palm) are prized for their cores, a.k.a. hearts of palm. Used in cooking since the time of the Mayans this is another superfood that is taking the modern culinary world by storm. With similar benefits to banana stem, hearts of palm are also an excellent source of potassium, and rich in nutrients, while at the same time being low in carbs, fat, and in sodium.
Much like artichoke hearts and water chestnuts, hearts of palm are imbued with a tender, crunchy texture and mild taste. Making them a perfectly malleable addition to salads, stir-fries, and pasta dishes. Speaking of which, at Veganerie Concept, a vegan restaurant in Bangkok, I recently enjoyed a well-made pad thai that had ribbons of hearts of palm eschewing the usually used flat rice noodles.
Another place I saw hearts of palm standing in as a vegan substitute for a seafood dish is in Brazil. Here, the popular vegan, coconut milk-based stew moqueca de palmito is made with cubes of hearts of palm replacing prawns in the orange-hued moqueca de camarão. Interestingly, both iterations also feature another derivative of the palm tree in the form of the almost neon orange coloured, thick dende oil.
Sadly, the superfood status accorded to the hearts of palm, especially those harvested from single-stalked palm trees like the coconut and sabal palm has lead to major worldwide deforestation and destructive monocultures. This is because harvesting the core from a palm tree with only one stalk means the entire plant dies.
Case in point, in Brazil, which was once both the largest producer and consumer of hearts of palm, illegal harvesting of the single-stalked juçara palm (a cousin of the other superfood açaí) has run rampant across the country, leading to the almost extinction of this particular palm. Nowadays, multi-stalked palms like the more sustainable peach palm grown in Costa Rica, Ecuador and South East Asia are the most popular varieties.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.