Among thousands of plant species that are similar to each other, there are some characteristic ones that are difficult to mistake, and at the same time incredibly useful. The banana, for example. The banana is a large plant that can reach over a dozen metres in height, but it’s a gigantic perennial rather than a tree.
It is generally known as a plant with edible fruits. Its flowers are also edible and are sold as a vegetable in the markets of southern Asia, e.g. in Thailand, Laos or Cambodia. The leaves can be used in many ways, as natural plates for meals (India), for rolling up dishes that are roasted on hot coals, or even as short-term hut coverings. The banana seems to be hard to replace. Its mealy fruits with a unique taste and massive, non-poisonous leaves make it a plant of great value. In our climate, we could use other large leaves instead of banana leaves, but when we look around us, there are not all that many plants with big leaves to choose from. Horseradish works really well. It is actually traditionally used in Poland for baking bread on and its leaves are wrapped round fish grilled in fire. My daughter loves to eat grilled sausages and hold them in horseradish leaves.
What other leaves were used in Poland for baking bread on? As research by the Polish Ethnographical Atlas has shown, in addition to horseradish, cabbage was widely used, along with the fragrant leaves of sweet flag (Acorus calamus, also called calamus) in the north-east. Much less often, maple, sycamore, and oak leaves were used in some villages.
I’ve also heard of the use of grape vines for this, which is probably a more recent fashion, but may well be a traditional practice in the South, as after all both the Balkans and the Middle East are famous for their stuffed grape leaves, dolma or sarma. Just like we use cabbage for our Polish gołąbki, the Southeners in the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East use grape vines, the Romanians and the Hutsuls stuff the bitter leaves of coltsfoot, while in Moldova they even used to use marsh marigolds for this purpose.
Actually, once I took part in a project reviewing all the leaves used for food wrapping in the former Ottoman empire and we managed to get to 82 species! For more details see here:
Dogan, Y., Nedelcheva, A., Łuczaj, Ł., Drăgulescu, C., Stefkov, G., Maglajlić, A., Ferrier, J., Papp, N., Hajdari, A., Mustafa, B. and Dajić-Stevanović, Z., 2015. Of the importance of a leaf: the ethnobotany of sarma in Turkey and the Balkans. Journal of ethnobiology and ethnomedicine, 11:11:26. https://ethnobiomed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13002-015-0002-x
Why, when writing about naturalness, am I writing about stuffed leaf dishes? Because the leaf as an architectonic product or a substitute for paper or vessel is something natural, deeply primitive. Before bread was made, rice was cooked or stuffing it in leaves was invented, meat, fish, insects and bulbs had been roasted on embers.
Besides roasting on the surface of the ground, the practice of pit cooking is also widespread among primitive people even of places very far away from each other. The Maori, Australian Aborigines, and Native Americans from the coast of the Pacific all did this.
They would make a pit, often surrounded by stones, in which they would light a fire and then remove at least some of the hot embers. They would make a layer of green leaves with bulbs or meat between them. Meals cooked in such a way have an amazing aroma and usually cook evenly (it is easy to burn a lot of things when roasting them over a fire). Another strength (and at once weakness) of this method is the long preparation time. We put the produce in in the evening, and breakfast is ready for us in the morning. Burying food in the ground is also a primitive method of its preservation. In Poland, too, cabbage used to be pickled directly in pits, similarly to how the people of Siberia prepared wild plants. There were also cases of meat being conserved by burying a whole animal underground. Peat is especially useful for this purpose. Mammoths conserved in peat, which are probably still good to eat, have been found many times in Siberia. A good stomach can take a lot… Once, during a botany class, I stole a piece of coconut from a friend. I was surprised that the meat was so hard (although it did taste of coconut). Only then did I notice a stamp with the Russian two-headed eagle on the shell – Carskiy Imperatorsky Universetet (Tsars Imperial University). It was a museum specimen from the end of the nineteenth century.