Banana Leaves and Sweets

My six year old grandson, Jun, and I were eating cassava cake at a local Filipino restaurant.  He asked what was underneath…and could he eat it? I told him it was a banana leaf and no, you don’t eat it.  He pulled off the leaf strips, smelled it…and then bit into it.  “Hmmmmm….” he said quizzically.

I thought of other foods where banana leaves are used, and how much banana leaves are a part of island and Filipino cooking — and my childhood food memories.

Banana Plant with Fruit – the entire leaf (huge!) is harvested, rib removed and cut into squares for Suman or smaller as a container for Puto

In the Philippines, snack foods are wrapped in banana leaves, used as a bottom, or to contain sweets prior to baking or steaming…sort of like cupcake paper or cupcake foils.  The difference is that the banana leaves impart a flavor when cooked.. so it is really a part of the recipe.

Puto and suman are popular sweet treats that use banana leaves.  As with many recipes, there are regional variations, and in the central Visayas, muffin-shaped putos are made from fermented rice flour.

Contained in Banana Leaf, Filipino “Puto” sold at the Palenke (Market)

When we were little, suman was a snack treat we often ate.  It is typically made from sticky rice half-cooked with  coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves and then steamed to finish the cooking process.

During Christmas, suman was served with rich and dark hot chocolate drinks, using freshly ground cacao beans.   We would peel the banana leaf off the suman, and if freshly steamed, take in the aroma — before dunking it in our chocolate drinks.

Filipino Suman – Sticky Rice and Coconut Milk wrapped in banana leaves and steamed

Like puto, suman has many varieties depending on family and region, and can also be made from grated cassava root — one of my favorite type of suman.

I like the fibrous texture of cassava suman, and sweetened with sugar and coconut milk…it is so delicious!  Sometimes chocolate is swirled into the mix prior to wrapping in banana leaves, or the center is filled with sweetened ground peanuts.

I also remember eating suman wrapped in palm leaf, but mostly the ones our family made were wrapped in banana leaves. So, essentially the word suman is a generic name for an assortment of tube or rectangle shaped, leaf-wrapped, steamed food (typically sweet or served with sweet dipping sauce).

During past trips to the Philippines, it seems there was always someone (kind and sweet)—like our Nanay Lucing or our Auntie Terling— who made batches of suman for us.  We enjoyed the treats while there, and then a fresh batch was made right before our departure to the U.S. to take with us.   Sadly, our Nanay Lucing has passed away, and though our Auntie Terling still seems young and beautiful to me,  I have to accept that she is nearing her mid-seventies and is not as energetic as before.

At our last trip, my sister and I purchased our Suman at the market from these women.

Wrapped in Banana Leaves, Suman and Puto for Sale at the Market

It occurs to me that it is now OUR turn to keep alive food traditions that we enjoyed from our childhood.  So…I better make sure my sisters and I know how to make suman if I want to keep this tradition for grandsons Jun and Gabriel.

My cousin Ate Violeta and her daughter Jady stayed with us during their visit to California.  Ate Violeta is an excellent cook and showed us how to make biko — another popular coconut milk and sticky rice treat.

Jun and Gabriel loved eating Ate Violeta’s Biko and it did not last long in our household …even the extra batch we put in the freezer “for later” soon vanished.

Biko is often what Jun will choose when we get a snack at the Filipino restaurant after his Tae Kwon Do lessons (though lately he has looked for Cassava Cake and has also been enjoying Ginataan – sweet potato, bananas, jackfruit, tapioca and rice balls stewed in coconut milk).

Well…with all this good banana leaf memories…I will definitely make Suman (and hot chocolate) a holiday tradition for the boys.  And though I don’t have the ease of lopping off fresh banana leaves from my backyard, I have no excuses really.  It is pretty easy to get banana leaves in the U.S. —- the leaf sheets are sold frozen at most Asian markets.

Frozen Banana Leaves — squares or rounds — are sold at most Asian Stores or Filipino Stores in the San Francisco Bay Area

And hopefully Jun and Gabriel will have pleasant memories associated with banana leaves…just like their Lola.

Please do comment and tell us your banana leaf memories, or favorite food wrapped in banana leaves.

Note:  Banana leaves are available at most Asian Markets — in the frozen food aisles — and is almost always available (also frozen) at Filipino Markets and mini stores.

Lola Jane’s Filipino Food related posts:

Philippine Romblon (Pandanus) Plant

The pandan plant is quite interesting and has many uses.  In certain parts of the Visayas region of the Philippines, it is called Romblon …which is also the name of an island / province.

Romblon - Close up of leaves

Pandan is a salt tolerant plant and grows by the seashore in Western Pacific Islands.  There are many varieties that grow in Malaysia, Indonesia and Hawaii.

In the Philippines, there are over 50 varieties, with some types producing leaves softer and more pliable, depending on where it grows.

Pandan leaves are super fragrant and used as a  flavor ingredient and as green food coloring in Filipino Cuisine.

In addition to the Filipino cooks, the Thais, Vietnamese, and Malaysians use pandan leaves in their cuisines.  Though most uses are for desserts such as custards, puddings and gelatin, there are other recipes I would like to try including pandan-wrapped fried chicken (from Thailand-wow!).

Pandan is also an ingredient for teas and other herbal concoctions.

Many cultures weave pandan leaves into useful items like

Weaving Romblon Leaves

  • sleeping mats
  • small bags
  • backpacks and market totes
  • boxes and other containers
  • place mats
  • trays

 

 

 

 

Below are some pandan /romblon product examples,  produced by Native Leaf.

Romblon Leaf "Bayongs" (Market Tote Bags)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Romblon Mini Bag (and placemats in background)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a multi-purpose plant indeed!

Here is a picture I took of two friends collecting romblon leaves for their own projects.

Picking Romblon (Pandanus) Leaves

There are small islands in the Philippines whose economy is tied to picking, drying and selling romblon leaves.  More on this topic next time…

In the meantime, let me know if you know of other uses for this interesting plant.

Lola Jane