Why it’s better to wrap food with banana leaf, and its critical decline in Malay households

The simple pleasure of a nasi lemak bungkus.
The simple pleasure of a nasi lemak bungkus.

BANGI, Nov 3 — Asians, including Malays, have long used leaves from the hardy and multi-purpose banana tree to wrap their food before plastic and polystyrene took over due to their convenience and price.

However, a cultural scientist has recently advocated for a return and widespread adoption of banana leaves as food wrappings instead of artificial alternatives due to its environmental sustainability and natural benefits.

Presenting at the recent National Malay Gastronomy Seminar by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation, fellow researcher Ros Mahwati Ahmad Zakaria said it even takes less than a year for a banana plant to fully grow.

“If enough trees are planted, their leaves can be a viable replacement as food wrappings, especially since the leaves will naturally decompose once disposed of,” she said.

Among the beneficial aspects of banana leaves include its natural waxy coating, which the researcher said provides good insulation for freshly prepared hot foods.

“Contrasted with artificial wrappings, the leaves do not produce adverse chemical reactions when in contact with hot food. They are not easily damaged, and can withstand temperatures reaching 100°C.

“Furthermore, an ongoing study in Indonesia has revealed banana leaves contain polyphenols similar to those found in tea leaves, which are rich in antioxidants,” Ros Mahwati said.

Would banana leaf rice be the same without the banana leaf? — Picture by Choo Choy May
Would banana leaf rice be the same without the banana leaf? — Picture by Choo Choy May

Another positive feature is the aroma produced when food is wrapped in the leaves, which she said is also imparted onto the dish itself — a simple pleasure we are accustomed with when buying nasi lemak packets, or eating banana leaf rice.

“Hot food in particular has this effect. And the food wrapped in banana leaves also tastes different in an indescribable but pleasant way.

“Banana leaves also have other non-food effects. A study conducted by Swiss researchers in 2013 showed that wounds properly bound with leaves has the same healing rate as those bound with Vaseline gauze,” she said.

But where are the banana leaves now?

When asked by Malay Mail as to why banana leaves, once ubiquitous in pre-modern Malay society, was not used as widely anymore, Ros Mahwati said the main factor is urbanisation.

“Banana trees are not common in cities anymore, you can hardly find any. People tend to use plastic or polystyrene alternatives since it is easy and fast, but many do not use leaves because they have to come into contact with the tree’s sap when collecting it.

“Even in rural areas its usage is in decline, with areas customarily set aside for planting greatly reduced. Simply put, they are viewed as no longer necessary in the modern world,” she said.

Ros Mahwati Ahmad Zakaria speaks during the Seminar Gastronomi Melayu Kebangsaan 2019 in Bangi October 30, 2019. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Ros Mahwati Ahmad Zakaria speaks during the Seminar Gastronomi Melayu Kebangsaan 2019 in Bangi October 30, 2019. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

The decline of using banana leaves in wrapping foods as part of traditional Malay food preparation has reached critical levels, as a survey Ros Mahwati conducted earlier this month among 101 women aged 40 to 50 years old with various occupations revealed that 94.5 per cent of them could not name which type of leaves are used to wrap food.

“The leaves of different banana species are used for a variety of foods. For example Saba banana leaves are used to wrap kuih, Latundan banana leaves for nasi lemak, and cotton banana (“pisang kapas”) leaves in cooking lemang.

Saba and Latundan are popular cultivars in the region, originating from the Philippines, and are called “pisang nipah” or “pisang abu” and “pisang rastali” respectively in Malaysia.

“There are even different ways to wrap certain types of foods, with at least 10 forms. Yet many could not tell the difference,” she said.

Most of all, Ros Mahwati lamented the loss of banana leaves’ symbolism in traditional Malay culture, adding that they are representative of humanity’s relationship with nature.

“Its importance cannot be underestimated, as it features prominently in pantun, ‘joget’ songs, sayings, and folk tales. At this rate, banana leaves and their usage will end up being forgotten by youths and future generations, eventually ceasing to be a part of Malay culture.

“I suppose we can only look to ourselves to see why this happens, losing sight of time-honoured traditional practices as we pursue the future, up to the point where living in city flats makes it impossible to even allocate a small plot of land to grow banana trees,” she said.

Traditional Malay kuih on sale at Pasar Besar Kedai Payang in Kuala Terengganu. — Bernama pic
Traditional Malay kuih on sale at Pasar Besar Kedai Payang in Kuala Terengganu. — Bernama pic

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