July 11, 2012

Vazhapoo Thoran/ Poduthuval (South Indian Style Banana Flower/ Blossom With Lentils and Coconut)

In the southern part of India that we belong to, the banana plant (no, it’s not a tree, just a very large plant!) and the coconut tree are very much a part of our lives.  As I have mentioned in a couple of my earlier posts,  in the days before high-rise apartment blocks became a reality, it was almost impossible to see a house in Kerala that didn’t have banana and coconut trees growing at the front ar the back of the house. In those days, if you dared to confess that you bought bananas (the stem or flowers) or coconuts people would look at you in a pitying manner as if to say “Poor chap, he’s come down to this in life….”.
Much has changed since the days of my childhood, but people in Kerala who do have a little bit of a backyard (or even a front yard) will plant at least one of each. Of course, its no longer a shame to buy them at the market nowadays because that’s about the only place you can find them sometimes!
Coconuts are almost the backbone of Kerala cuisine, from the soft fleshy white coconut that is grated, the thick fragrant coconut milk to the fresh aromatic coconut oil that is extracted from the copra. The coconut husk is converted into coir, the coconut leaves are converted into brooms or used woven to thatch huts and the trunk of the tree makes excellent building material and furniture.

It is much the same with the banana plant. We use every part of it except perhaps the roots! The raw fruit is cooked and eaten, as is the ripe fruit. Even the flowers of the banana plant are cooked in different ways. Traditionally, we use the leaves for steam-cooking certain food s in as well as for serving meals. The banana leaf as a plate means no plates to wash and the used leaves are completely biodegradable and often fed to cows. The stem of the plant yields strong fibre, and in some varieties is also cooked and eaten.
While raw and ripe bananas, and even the stem, are often cooked, banana flowers are considered even more of a delicacy because they’re usually not cut and cooked. Every banana flower is a potential bunch of bananas so they’re usually not cut in the way we might cut other vegetables or fruit.
More often than not, they’re removed from banana plants that have fallen. Banana plants have roots that don’t really go very deep into the ground and are easily uprooted during heavy rainfall or by strong wind during storms.

I haven’t posted too many raw banana and related recipes mostly because I haven’t been able to find the “core” ingredients here where I live. I see a lot of banana plants here but it seems people here eat only the ripe fruit. It’s a different matter that I don’t particularly like raw banana.
My husband loves the dishes we traditionally cook with anything banana (fruit, stem or flower) and our daughter might eat it if she isn’t told that’s what it is! Last week, when I discovered banana flowers at my vegetable vendor at the market I couldn’t believe my eyes. Actually the deep reddish purple coloured, tear drop shaped “flower” is actually an inflorescence or a cluster of flowers arranged around a stem which you will discover when you peel off the layered red “petals”.

My vegetable vendor looked surprised that I wanted to buy them and asked, “Aap is ka kya karte ho? Iska subzi banathe ho? Accha lagta he kya?” (Translation: “What do you do with this? Make a curry? Does it taste good/ Do you like it?”) I picked up 2 small ones to make into a traditional stir-fry sort of preparation. Banana flowers are very easy to make and take very little time to cook. What takes time and a lot of effort is removing the flowers, cleaning and chopping them.
Choose banana flowers that are firm with tightly packed leaves. Don’t be tempted to buy the ones where the outer leaves are slowly opening up no matter how nice they look. If you don’t plan on using them right away, just wrap it well in cling wrap and store in the crisper in your fridge. I would advise you use it up at the earliest for best results.

Banana flowers are best cooked fresh and tend to a bit bitter. The bitterness can be removed but some varieties of banana flowers do remain bitter no matter what. The bitterness comes largely from the sap in the flowers. Trimming off the base of the flowers and removing the stamen in each of the more mature flowers is a must. Then the flowers are chopped and immersed in diluted buttermilk or very sour yogurt. This also ensures the flowers do not discolour and turn dark brown/ black.
It is also a good idea to wear gloves ( I hate them) when cleaning the flowers or else you will be left with stained and unsightly and blackened fingertips and nails which will not clean out easily! The traditional way to prevent this is to thoroughly rub in some coconut (or any other) oil on both hands, inside and out, before starting to clean out the flowers. Once you are done, some soap, warm water and a bit of scrubbing should ensure your hands look pretty again. 

There are many different ways of cooking with banana flowers. This time I chose to cook it as a "thoran/ poduthuval" which is a sort of South Indian style stir-fry finished off with fresh grated coconut. There are many versions of this, and my version contains lentils.
Though I may not like eating banana flower preparations much, I went a bit trigger happy with my camera and hence the overdose of banana flower photography!

Vazhapoo Thoran/ Poduthuval (South Indian Style Banana Flower/ Blossom With Lentils and Coconut)

1 banana flower (about 2 1/2 cups, when chopped and loosely packed)
1 1/2 cups sour yogurt (not the thick kind) or buttermilk
1/4 cup yellow moong lentils (moong dal)
2 tsp coconut oil
1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 1/2 tsp black gram lentils (urad dal)
1/4 tsp asafoetida
2 to 3 green chillies, slit lengthwise
2 sprigs curry leaves
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
Salt to taste
3/4 cup loosely packed fresh grated coconut

Apply some oil to both your hands and rub together ensuring both hands are well coated. Soak the moong lentils in some water and keep aside (for about 1/2 hour). In a largish bowl, pour the sour yogurt/ buttermilk and add another 2 to 2 1/2 cups or so of water and mix well. This is the liquid in which the chopped flower is to be soaked to counter the bitterness as well as to prevent discolouration.
Peel off the first leaf and you will see an orderly row of small yellow tipped flowers at the base. If they look very dark and mature, discard them with the leaf. Peel off and discard the first few outer red leaves but keep the small yellowish white flowers. Trim the base of the flowers and pull out and discard the stiff (sometimes dark) stamen from the centre of the flower. Chop the flowers and immediately immerse them in the diluted yogurt/ buttermilk
Once you reach the pale coloured and almost white coloured leaves, the flowers look soft and tender and peeling the leaves becomes difficult, you will find the stamens are very soft.  Cut off whatever bit of stalk/ stem is present. You can stop removing them and the leaves and chop this up (leaves and flowers together). Now go wash your hands!
Let the chopped flower stay in the liquid for about an hour. You can even keep them overnight in the fridge (do the cleaning just before you go to bed) and then cook them in the morning.
Too cook the flowers, drain the liquid and rinse the chopped flowers. Heat the coconut oil in a wok and add the mustard seeds. When they crackle, add the black gram lentils and stir a couple of time till they start turning brown. Add the asafoetida, curry leaves and green chillies and stir a couple of times. Drain the moong lentils of the water and add them to the wok. Add the chopped flowers and stir fry for a couple of minutes and turn down the heat to medium.
Add the turmeric powder and salt. Sprinkle a little water and allow t to cook, stirring occasionally and sprinkling a little more water if necessary. This dish cooks up very quickly. Once the lentils and flowers are cooked, turn off the heat. Add the grated coconut and mix well. Serve hot as a side dish with rice.

This recipe serves 4.



Outstanding vazhapoo thoran! Lovely shots Aparna ;)