As I mentioned in my rambutans post, my cooking recently has been led by some unusual ingredients turning up in Asian supermarkets. On a recent trip to London, I stopped into one of the Gerrard St Asian stores in the hope of catching some winged beans. They did have winged beans but they looked nasty and brown at the edges so sadly I had to pass them by. However, what did look nice and fresh was banana flowers, an ingredient I don’t recall seeing before in the UK.
Regular readers might remember my fascination with the ready-shredded banana flowers in the Mekong Delta. At first, I had no idea what the giant piles of curling vegetable were: they looked a lot like Roman puntarelle but clearly weren’t. Eventually, someone told me what they were and the next time I was in a restaurant, I ordered the banana blossom salad. Like most Vietnamese salads, it was light and fresh, but at the same time complexly flavoured with layers of herbs and aromatics. And like Southeast Asian salads in general, it’s not like a Western salad so much as a category of main dish that’s mostly uncooked. A good Asian salad contrasts nicely with a thick curry, a crispy fried dish, a hot stir-fry. You might not come across a banana flower too often, but if you live somewhere with a good Asian market, they make for a tasty crisp side dish that uses all the fresh herbs you can lay your hands on. And if you don’t have any banana flowers, this is still a nice dish with cabbage or endive (or I might even be tempted to try it with jicama).
Vietnamese banana flower salad (Goi Bap Chuoi)
- 2 banana flowers
- 1 little gem lettuce
- 1/2 lime
- 2 shallots
- 5 small red chilies or to taste
- bunch of Thai basil
- bunch of mint
- bunch of cilantro (or Vietnamese coriander if you have it)
- 3 tbsp sesame seeds
- 2 tbsp roasted peanuts
- 3 tbsp Asian fried shallots
for the dressing:
- 3 tbsp fish sauce*
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
- 2 limes
* For a vegetarian version, use 2 tbsp soy sauce and be prepared to add more salt if necessary. A bit less soy sauce is good here as it can be a pushier flavour if you’re not careful – you might also want more lime.
Your first order of business is shredding the banana flower. Take off the outer, purple leaves till you are down to the fresh green ones. Now, I am going to tell you to put the slices directly into a bowl of cold water with lime in it to prevent discolouration, but the thing is you’re going to assume that this is like a pear or an apple. Trust me, it is not. These suckers turn a gross, dirty grey brown within seconds of exposure. It’s a kind of awesome and yet horrible decay in fast-motion. Also, there are flower buds in between the leaves that you don’t want to eat, so you can’t just slice through the whole thing like a cabbage – you need to take off one leaf at a time. These issues are slightly in tension with one another. So to shred the flowers, I ended up taking off one leaf at a time, slicing it and dumping it in the water. This may not be the best way but it worked decently for me. I’m open to better suggestions…
Once that’s done, you can shred the lettuce at a more relaxed tempo. In Vietnam, they cut the banana flower with the stems of morning glory but crispy small lettuce seemed like a good alternative. Slice the shallots thinly and put in a big serving bowl.
In a cast-iron skillet, toast the sesame seeds and then peanuts till golden, then cool. Wash and tear the herbs, and mince the chilies.
To make the dressing, mix fish sauce, sugar, lime juice and a glug of warm water till the sugar has dissolved. Taste for balance and add more of anything you think is needed.
Finally, drain the shredded banana flower and mix everything in the bowl. Top with fried shallots.
Serves 4, ideally as part of a meal with other components.