Food

Going bananas with Malaysian cooking

Grilled Snapper in banana leaf (Malaysian recipe)

If you thought banana plant was good for its fruit alone, think again.

Banana leaves are extensively used in Indian and Asian cooking for a variety purposes – from decorative to culinary.

Native to South India, Malaysia and many other parts of Southeast Asia, the banana plant provides rich flavour and its leaves work well as a vessel, cooking receptacle and even flavour enhancer.

Grilled Snapper in banana leaf (Malaysian recipe)

The banana leaf is especially popular among Malaysian chefs, who use it for almost everything – from wrapping fish for steaming or grilling, to packaging up spices bought at hawker markets.

But here’s one use of the giant-sized leaf that may come as a surprise to unassuming culinary lovers: Indians and Malaysians use the leaf for plating food.

This tradition has been brought to New Zealand by Malaysian chefs and can be seen in a number of Malaysian restaurants throughout the country.

One in particular is Santhiya’s Malaysian restaurant in Auckland. Here owner and chef Yougeswari Subramaniam has been dishing up delicious Malaysian meals on banana leaves every Sunday for more than 18 years.

Subramaniam started the “All You Can Eat Banana Leaf Sundays” in 1993 when she opened Santhiya’s and has fed thousands of dedicated locals meals served on the banana leaf every Sunday since.

The Sunday menu gives customers a bare banana leaf ‘plate’. On these are served a range of speciality Malaysian dishes from a unique Sunday-only menu suited for serving in the authentic banana leaf style. As the chosen dishes gradually empty the wait staff top up the dish until you are saturated.

Subramaniam’s Sunday brunch keeps the place very busy.

Sunday is a day-off for everyone, the chef says. “After late nights on Saturday all people want to do is get up and fill up on as much food as they can – Sundays are a day to indulge.”

Her banana-leaf menu is a fusion of Malay and South Indian cooking. And it has stayed the same since 1993.

“My customers are so used to their favourites, from roti canai to a lamb curry. People look forward to their dishes and I’m too scared to take anything off the menu!”

Subramaniam earned her reputation for great food through another iconic Malaysian dish – roti.

When she came to New Zealand in 1991 from Ipoh, Malaysia, she started a home business of roti-making for friends and family.

She was soon making more than 500 rotis a week and realised there was the potential to expand her offering of tasty South-Indian inspired Malaysian cuisine.

The Banana Leaf’s most popular item is – surprising to some – a well-known South Indian-Malay cabbage dish simply known as ‘Stir-fried Cabbage’.

Subramaniam says people are surprised at how tasty cabbage can be when prepared properly with the right mix of spices.

Here she shares her easy-to-prepare recipe for home cooks looking to make the most of a traditionally unsung vegetable – stir fried cabbage.

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