Many people might be surprised that, apart from being a fabulous ornamental statement in the garden, banana leaves are extremely handy in the kitchen.

chicken chipotle tamalesThroughout the tropics and subtropics they are used to wrap, steam, and serve many types of food.  Here I also like to use them as table runners for special tropically-themed evenings.

Vigorous, hardy Musa basjoo can provide all the leaves you need to make my smoky, spicy variation on a traditional tamale, but any banana will suffice.

Once cut into squares, crunch the midrib flat with your fingers and hold them over a hot stovetop for a minute or so to soften them.

Use as much veg as possible from your own summer garden, and remove the seeds from the chipotles if you wish to cut down on the heat.  

The wonderful thing about tamales is that they get better with a few days in the fridge.  That makes dinner much easier. Make them ahead and steam them to reheat when needed.




2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 medium onion chopped

1 medium summer squash

2 garlic cloves sliced

3 14 ½ oz cans diced tomatoes or 2 pounds fresh, seeded and chopped

2 Tbsp fresh oregano chopped

1 7 oz can chipotles in adobo sauce (remove stems)

Musa basjoo waits outside the kitchen.

1 cup chicken broth

2 bay leaves

1 tsp cumin

½ tsp fresh ground pepper

¾ tsp. salt

2 ½ tsp sugar


1 ½ lb.  Masa harina

¾ cup lard or vegetable oil

3 ½ cups chicken broth, divided

1 teaspoon salt

Filling & Wrapping

2 cups cooked chicken, chopped or shredded

14 banana leaves, cut into rough 12-inch squares, midribs flattened, and warmed over a stovetop to wilt them.


Sauté onion and garlic in oil with cumin and oregano until tender. Add the rest of ingredients except bay leaves. Simmer for 20 minutes on medium heat, then use a hand blender to puree the sauce. Add bay leaves and put back on a very low heat, allowing the sauce to thicken. Set aside.

Make the masa: In a large bowl combine the dry masa harina with the lard or oil and mix thoroughly with your hands. Slowly add 3 cups of the broth, mix, and turn out bowl to knead the mixture with gusto for about five minutes. Add remaining broth as necessary to create a very soft and pliable dough that resembles warm playdoh.  Masa will not knead like bread dough — smash it into the counter top with the heel of your hand over and over — almost in a fan pattern — then roll it all back together and repeat until you get the correct consistency.

Lay a prepared banana square face up and put four ounces of masa in the middle of the rib, pressing down to create a 6×5 inch rectangle. Spread 2 tablespoons of sauce and top with approximately 1 ½ ounces of chicken. Take one side of the banana leaf and fold the tamale back on itself, pressing the edges together. Continue to roll up the tamale and fold and tuck the two ends underneath.

Stack the tamales in a steamer basket in a tall stockpot with water in the bottom and simmer for 1 ½ hours until the tamale is fully cooked. A steam oven is also handy if you’re lucky enough to have one. Unwrap the tamales, plate up on individual plates or on a platter and generously spoon the reserve sauce over them, adding a dollop of sour cream, slices of avocado, and a sprinkle of fresh cilantro.

Makes 14 tamales.

Bananas in the August Garden

I love to pair bananas (here Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’) and castor bean (Ricinus communis) in the garden, but they should NEVER be paired in the kitchen as all parts of castor bean are extremely poisonous.
Photo from Tropical Plants and How to Love Them (2021)

tropical plants and how to love them