In my worklife my recipe writing revolves around straightforward meals anyone can make, using ingredients that are easily available to everyone, no matter where they live. So it is such joy to come home and write about something that – hah! – if you want to make it you’re going to have to do some searching. Banana flowers do not grow at your local co-op (unless you actually live in Vietnam or Thailand) and you can’t get them in Sainsbury’s, not now, not ever. But I beseech you to seek them out anyway, and make this salad, as it is utterly sublime and so worth it, and if it means making a special trip to a town somewhere a bit far away that has a Vietnamese supermarket* then you can have a little adventure on the way. Who said food always has to be about churning out dinner as quickly as possible from the contents of your cupboards? Let’s live a little!
Tackling something as unfamiliar as a banana flower can be a little daunting if you don’t have an expert on hand to talk you through it, but there’s an excellent photographic guide here over on the blog ‘Cannundrums’ which explains it far better than I could!
Vietnamese banana flower salad (Nộm hoa chuối)
Serves 2 as a main course
1 banana flower
2 small chicken breasts
4 small sour green star fruit (again from the Vietnamese store) or 2 large yellow ones
1 tbsp caster sugar
Handful toasted peanuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
juice of 4 limes
2-3 red chillies, finely sliced
2-3 tbsp fish sauce
A few shakes of sesame oil
Couple of pinches ground white pepper
a small bunch each of Vietnamese mint and coriander
Place the chicken breasts in a small pan and cover with water (or chicken stock), bring to the boil then turn down the heat and simmer very gently for 10 minutes. Pop a lid on, turn off the heat and leave the chicken to cook in the residual heat for a further 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool before shredding roughly.
Remove any loose or soft outer leaves from the banana flower, then cut into half lengthways and shred into fine strips with a large sharp knife. About 1/3 – 1/2 of the flower closest to the root will be made up of fluffy coiled buds – discard this section and use only the tightly coiled petals. Leave to soak in a bowl of water with half the lime juice whilst you get on with the rest of the salad.
Slice the star fruit and cover with the sugar and a little water to soak for 5 minutes to take the edge off the sourness (you wont need to do this if you’re using ripe yellow fruits – in fact you might want to add a little extra lime juice to get a good level of acidity in the final dish).
Mix the cooled and shredded chicken together the remaining lime juice, fish sauce, white pepper, chopped chilli and a little sesame oil. Drain the banana flower and star fruit and toss together with the chicken and dressing. Taste and adjust the seasoning with fish sauce, lime or sesame. Roughly shred the herbs and toss through the salad, then top with the chopped peanuts and sesame seeds. Serving on a spare banana flower petal is totally optional.
*For me the best place to find these is Mare Street in North London which has several great South-East Asian stores or one of the Bangledeshi stores (of all places) in the Southern part of Brick Lane, but a quick Google search should sort you out if you’re further afield.