Grilled Fish and Banana Leaves Make For a Romantic Dinner
Everyone loves receiving gifts in small parcels, especially for Valentines Day. This year, consider preparing a romantic dinner for your loved one and serving fresh grilled fish beautifully wrapped in banana leaves. My truly simple recipe is so flavorful and is sure to impress.
Cultures within countries that grow bananas have devised ways to creatively use the giant leaves of the banana plant. From South America to Southeast Asia, the dark green, pliant leaves are often used as a decorative element for special ceremonies, as a plate for serving food and for wrapping both sweet and savory dishes.
Similar to tamales where corn husks are used to wrap fillings, banana leaves serve as an ideal vehicle for making fragrant parcels of food. When roasted or steamed, the banana leaf imparts a subtle sweet tea like flavor to the filing within.
In South Indian states, it is tradition to eat meals on banana leaves that serve as practical waterproof plates. Countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, commonly take whole fish, smother it with a chili paste, secure it with banana leaves and grill the packet until crisp.
On the sweet side, one often finds in this part of the world, colorful rice flour dumplings called kueh, with assorted sweet fillings, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. There’s also a traditional Filipino coconut cake that is baked in a pot lined with banana leaves called bibingka.
Here in Singapore, we’re very fortunate to have fresh banana leaves available at our local wet markets. The next best alternative is to search the frozen food section of your local Asian market to find large packets of banana leaves. Before using the leaves as a wrapping for food, allow the leaves to thaw to room temperature; and if necessary, pass the leaf over a low flame to soften and make them flexible. Give the leaves a good wiping with a damp towel and rub with a bit of vegetable oil for a nice sheen. Any unused leaves can be refrozen and used at a later date.
Try your hand at my variation of a classic Malay recipe called ikan bakar (grilled fish in banana leaves). It’s an excellent way of preparing fish that’s flavorful and keeps the fish extra moist. If you find grilling a whole fish too daunting, try using snapper or salmon filets instead. You’ll be sure to impress your Valentine with this tasty parcel of goodness.
Malaysian Spice-Rubbed Whole Fish (Makes 4 servings)
1 (2 lb) whole red snapper, sea bass or tilapia, scaled and gutted, or 4 (6 oz) filets
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon palm sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 kaffir lime leaves, thinly sliced
1 large banana leaf (12 x 16 inch rectangle) or aluminum foil
3 (8 inch) bamboo skewers, soaked in water for 15 minutes
1 lime, cut into wedges
2 red Fresno chilies, seeded and chopped
1/3 cup chopped shallots
3 tablespoons galangal, peeled and chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste
2 macadamia nuts or blanched almonds
1/8 teaspoon salt
Preheat a grill over high heat or an oven to 450°F.
Use a mortar and pestle or mini-food processor to grind the ingredients for the aromatic paste with 2 tablespoons of water until smooth. Heat a sauce pan over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, add 2 tablespoons of oil and fry the aromatic paste until fragrant and the paste turns a shade darker, 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the lime juice, sugar and salt and simmer for 2 more minutes. Remove the paste from the heat, transfer it to a large shallow dish or bowl and let cool to room temperature.
To prepare the fish for grilling, hold a knife at a 45º angle and score the side of the fish crosswise down the length of the fish 3 times. Repeat on the other side. Heat a large saute pan to medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of oil. Pan sear both sides of the fish until golden brown. About 2 min per side. Wipe the banana leaf with a damp towel and place the shiny side down.
Place the fish on top of the banana leaf, horizontally, and use your hands to rub the paste generously into the slits and cavity of the fish. Sprinkle the lime leaves on top of the seasoned fish. Fold the top and bottom portion of the leaf over the fish and secure the middle and ends of the banana leaf with skewers.
Once the grill or oven is hot, oil the grill grates and place the banana leaf packet seam side up directly on the grill or place on a baking sheet and roast in the center rack of an oven. Grill or bake the fish 7 to 10 minutes on one side and then turn the packet and grill or bake on the other side for another 7 to 10 minutes.
To serve, transfer the banana leaf packet to a warmed platter and unwrap the fish. Serve right away with lime wedges as a garnish.