Vazhapoo or Banana Flower Thoran is a typical dish from Kerala. It is made with chopped banana flowers/ blossoms cooked with a minimum of spices, finished off with a sprinkling of fresh coconut. Sometimes, a handful of split moong lentils or dal is also added. The banana plant (it is not a tree but a very large plant) and the coconut tree are very much a part of our lives in Kerala. It was almost impossible to see a house in Kerala without a banana and coconut tree in the backyard in the old days. Then, it was considered a very sad thing if you bought bananas, banana stem or flowers, or coconuts at the store. If you did, people thought one had come down in life!
Much has changed since my childhood, but people in Kerala will still plant a banana or coconut tree in the backyard if they can find the space for it. Almost every part of the coconut tree and the banana plant is used here. The white flesh of the coconut is used in cooking as grated coconut , coconut milk or aromatic coconut oil. Coconut husk is converted into coir, coconut leaves are made into brooms or woven to thatch huts. Coconut wood is excellent as building material and furniture.
Similarly, raw banana is cooked and eaten, as is the ripe fruit. The skin of raw plantains is edible. The flowers of the banana plant are cooked in different ways. The leaves are used for wrapping food in and steam-cooking and also as eco-friendly “plates” to serve food on. The used leaves are completely biodegradable and often fed to cows. The banana stem is very rich in fibre and many commercial applications. Some banana varieties have medicinal value, and the stem of these are edible.
Bananas and banana stem are cooked very commonly in Kerala. Vazhapoo or the flowers/ blossoms are considered somewhat a delicacy. This is because they’re usually cut down as every banana flower is a potential bunch of bananas. They’re usually cut from banana plants that have fallen during heavy rainfall or storms. These days, people cultivate banana plants specifically for the flowers so they’re more commonly available.
My husband loves anything cooked with banana (fruit, stem or flower) while I don’t. This Vazhapoo or Banana Flower Thoran is one of the exceptions. The deep reddish purple coloured, tear drop shaped banana “flower” is actually an inflorescence or cluster of flowers arranged around a stem. When you peel off each layer of red “petals”, you will find a neatly arranged row of yellow tipped cream coloured flowers. These are the true banana flowers.
Vazhappo or Banana Flower Thoran is very easy to cook. It is a traditional Kerala style stir fried preparation. It is the removing the flowers, cleaning and chopping them that takes a little effort. Choose banana flowers that are fresh, firm with tightly packed leaves and have a good deep colour. Don’t be tempted to buy them if the outer leaves are slowly opening. If you don’t plan on using them right away, wrap them tightly in cling wrap and store in the fridge. They will keep well for a couple of days, but do use them at the earliest.
Banana flowers are best cooked fresh and can be very slightly bitter. This bitterness comes largely from the sap in the flowers. Some varieties of banana flowers are very bitter and best not cooked. The sap in the slowers can stain and bvlacken your fingers. So wear gloves or grease your hands with coconut oil before you start prepping. Start by peeling of the outer reddish purple “petals/ leaves”. Trim the base of the flowers and remove the outer most waxy skin on each flower. Also remove the hard dark brown/ black coloured pistil/stamen in each flower. You don’t have removed the soft pistil/ stamens in the immature flowers you find towards the centre. Chop the flowers and immerse them in diluted buttermilk or very sour yogurt to prevent discoloring.
This recipe can be cooked without lentils but this is how we have always made it at home. There are two reasons for adding split moong lentils/ dal to this dish. Banana flowers tend to shrink in volume when cooked so lentils add body and flavour of course. They also add protein to a fibre rich dish.
This post was originally published in July, 2012 and since been updated with text and images.
Vazhapoo or Banana Flower Thoran
- 1 banana flower about 2 1/2 cups, when chopped and loosely packed
- 1 1/2 cups sour very thin yogurt or buttermilk
- 1/4 cup yellow split moong lentils moong dal
- 2 tsp coconut oil
- 1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 1/2 tsp split 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. The chopped flowers are soaked in this 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 remove the outer thin waxy layer. Then 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.
- To 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.