Wrapping food in banana leaves is a distinctive cooking method in Philippine cuisine. The leaves allow the food to poach in its own juice and lend a faint but delectable aroma of fruit and herbs to the dish.
Heavenly aroma aside, I love how a mélange of flavors gets trapped inside the parcel and how it keeps the fish moist and tender. In the Philippines, bangus (milkfish) or tilapia is used in this recipe, but other kinds of white fish—like sea bream, sea bass, halibut, cod, and snapper—also work well.
When Filipinos eat grilled food, it’s often paired with eggplant salad. The eggplant is charred until the skin is almost black (and ugly), but when you slice it open to scoop out the pulp, the smokiness can make you drool. This is a basic mix with onions, tomatoes, and vinegar. If you’re feeling more adventurous, some versions add bagoong (shrimp paste), green mangoes, and salted duck eggs.
Preparation Time: 45 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
- 2 tomatoes, small diced
- 1 red onion, small diced
- 1 (2-inch) piece ginger, peeled and grated
- 2 (1-pound) whole white fish (such as sea bream), scaled, gutted, rinsed, and patted dry
- 4 thin lemon slices
- Salt, to taste
- 2 large banana leaves, rinsed and dried
- Eggplant Salad (recipe follows), for serving
- Vanilla Rice (recipe follows), for serving
Prepare a charcoal grill.
In a bowl, mix together the tomatoes, onion, and ginger. Stuff the stomach of each fish with half of the tomato mixture. Add two slices of lemon to each. Season both sides of the fish with salt.
Place the banana leaves on a clean work surface. Place one stuffed fish on top of each leaf. Wrap each fish in a banana leaf and tie with kitchen twine, if needed, to close tightly (see Note).
Grill the fish packets for 10 to 15 minutes per side. To check for doneness, poke the fish with the tip of a knife. If the flesh is still translucent and sticks to the bone, close the packet and continue grilling. When cooked through, unwrap the fish, discard the banana leaves, and serve immediately with the eggplant salad and vanilla rice.
Note: The spine of the banana leaf can be removed and used as food string to secure the packet, if needed.
- 3 medium eggplants
- 1 tomato, small diced
- 1/2 red onion, small diced
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1/4 cup vinegar of your choice
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 ounces pancetta, diced
Pierce the eggplants all over with a sharp knife. Place them on a hot grill or directly on the burner of a gas stove and turn them frequently until the skin is charred all over. Remove the eggplants from the heat, let them cool enough to touch them, then peel and discard the skin.
Transfer the eggplant pulp to a medium bowl, then break it apart using two forks. Add the tomato, onion, parsley, and vinegar, mixing well. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Set the eggplant mixture aside.
In a small saucepan, toast the pancetta over low heat for about 5 minutes, or until crunchy but not burned. Discard the fat. Add the pancetta to the eggplant salad. Serve at room temperature.
Vanilla Rice With Toasted Sesame Seeds
- 1 1/2 cups long-grain rice
- 2 3/4 cups water
- 1 vanilla pod, halved lengthwise
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Combine the rice, water, and vanilla pod in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low. Cover the pan almost completely, leaving it just slightly uncovered, and simmer until the rice completely absorbs the water. While the rice is cooking, toast the sesame seeds in a small saucepan over low heat for about 3 minutes, or until the seeds turn brown.
When the rice is cooked, remove and discard the vanilla pod. Sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds on top. Serve warm or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer until ready to use.
Recipe by Rowena Dumlao-Giardina.
Reprinted with permission from “The New Filipino Kitchen,” edited by Jacqueline Chio-Lauri, Agate Surrey, 2018.