Dining Out

Southeast Asian food at Banana Leaf

My mother had been wanting to treat us to lunch-merienda-dinner for the longest time but finding a day when the girls would be free turned out to be a challenge. Weekends are already tight, it’s almost the end of the term and the pig out date had to be rescheduled several times. Last weekend was a long one, we picked a day and made a date. Despite that, the venue was changed three times.

First, we agreed on Chinatown’s Best along Banawe Avenue in Quezon City. We haven’t been there since the girls were toddlers, I heard it was newly renovated so I wanted to do an “I shall return”. But the girls wanted to go shopping too. So, we chose a restaurant in a mall. Sam suggested Army Navy (Mexican food) at the Glorietta, her grandmother agreed, then, the day before we were scheduled to go out, Sam changed her mind and said she wanted Asian food.

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I was so dizzy with her fickle-mindedness that I chose the restaurant myself. I hadn’t been to Banana Leaf before but the thought of Thai, Singaporean, Malay and Indian food under one roof was too irresistible. I’ll give you my assessment before I go into a detailed description of the dishes that we had. The texture of the food at Banana Leaf is just wonderful. Seafood is cooked just right, never overdone, so that the fish, squid and mussels were all so succulent and tender. Same thing with pork and chicken. In short, they know how to cook the food.

My issue is with the seasoning. Except for two or three dishes, everything that we ate at Banana Leaf was undersalted. I had to ask for fish sauce on the side to fully savor the food. I don’t know if the management is trying to dance a tango with current health fads about the dangers of sodium. But when a restaurant advertises that it serves Southeast Asian food, there is an implicit message that it knows what Southeast Asian food is all about. It is about the blending of flavors more than anything else. Spicy, tangy, sweet, salty… take one away and the balance is destroyed. In a nutshell, therefore, our Banana Leaf experience was a combination of very good and not so good.

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We started with the Thai vermicelli salad and gado-gado. The Thai vermicelli salad had too many things that I’m allergic to so I left it alone.

Gado-gado is an Indonesian salad with peanut sauce. The peanut sauce of Banana Leaf’s version was thick and rich and flavorful but it needed more fish sauce. Or salt.

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We had bak kut teh for our soup — Singaporean bak kuh teh based on the light color as Malaysian bak kuh teh is much darker (see my version). The pork ribs had generous amounts of meat, the broth was light and refreshing but, sadly, I didn’t taste nor smell enough of the spices that makes bak kuh teh what it is. No trace of cinnamon nor star anise nor coriander.

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The deep-fried pandan chicken was made with thigh fillets. Thank goodness because I so hate the dryness of chicken breast meat.

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The chicken was juicy and tender but, again, it needed more fish sauce. If I didn’t have the bowl of fish sauce beside my banana leaf “plate”, I might not have enjoyed the pandan chicken to the hilt (see my version of pandan chicken).

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Despite my allergy, I couldn’t say no to the Vietnamese prawn balls with cheese. They just looked so good. I tried one and it was nice. Nothing too overpowering. Nothing too satiating. Just a nice whiff of that distinct crustacean flavor and melted cheese inside.

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The tilapia fillet with Malayan cream sauce was one of the two dishes that I loved best. Yes, it could have benefited from a little more salt or fish sauce too but I had my fish sauce on the side and I could forgive anything else. The white flaring things that you see are actually the flesh from both sides of the fish. Perfectly floured, perfectly fried and perfectly coated with creamy sauce that was so fantastic and mysterious at the same time. Was it coconut cream? Partly, yes. But it was more than coconut cream because the flavors and aroma were more subtle. And yet, ironically, the texture was thicker than reduced coconut cream. Whatever else was in it, it was magnificent. With a sprinkling of fish sauce, of course.

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After succumbing to the prawn balls, I didn’t have the guts to try the Thai style charcoal grilled whole squid lest I ended up in the emergency room of some hospital. But Sam said the squid was just perfect so I’ll leave it at that. After all, Sam is a more exacting food critic than I am.

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The kangkong (swamp spinach) with sambal sauce was advertised in the menu as Chinese kangkong with sambal sauce. In this country, when you say “Chinese kangkong“, it means a variety of kangkong with shorter stalks and thinner, more pointed leaves. What was served to us was definitely local kangkong, not the Chinese variety. How was it? if it had been real Chinese kangkong, the stalks wouldn’t have been so tough. Enough said.

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The stir fried mussels in Singaporean chili sauce was my other favorite dish that day (the other one being the tilapia). The mussels were cooked just right so that the meat inside the shell did not shrivel. See the size of the meat relative to the size of the shell? In the hands of a less skilled cook, the meat would have shrunk to half that size. The stir fried mussels in Singaporean chili sauce did not need additional fish sauce. It was wonderfully seasoned.

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Finally, there was the Hainanese chicken and the Penang fried rice with salted fish and chicken. The Hainanese chicken was delicious (but needed fish sauce). So tender. So richly flavored. And the fact that it was served with three dipping sauces made me give it a higher score.

Now the Penang fried rice with salted fish and chicken was a pleasant shock to me. Just the previous day, I made the salted fish and duck fried rice thinking I had invented something new. And then I had this Penang fried rice with salted fish and chicken. Did I feel sad after finding out that the salted fish and poultry meat combination was a Penang classic rather than a Connie Veneracion invention? On the contrary. I was elated. I felt that I have finally assimilated Southeast Asian cuisines that combining “unusual” ingredients has become second nature to me. I do love Asian food. I do adore Southeast Asian cuisines.

Okay, how much did the meal cost? I don’t know. My mother paid for it. But you can visit Banana Leaf’s website and view the menu where the prices are indicated so that you can get an idea whether Banana Leaf is expensive or reasonable.

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