Making Banana Leaf Tamales

Rick Bayless calls these Juchitán-style tamales, which is a word I love to say: “hoochie-TAHN.” Juchitán is a city located in the southeastern Mexican state of Oaxaca (also fun to say: wah-HOCK-ah). It’s a town known for food, art, cross-dressing and indigenous languages. Don’t ask me about the third thing, it’s a long story…Mrs. Pastry will tell you all about it if you ask her, she was in Juchitán in November on a research project.

The differences between banana leaf tamales and their better-known corn husk brethren are a.) the look, but also b.) the flavor. Banana leaves impart a green-banana-like flavor and aroma to tamales, which works surprisingly well with corn masa and grilled chicken (or refried beans). Here I’m doing a bean version which is the simplest.

The masa in Bayless’ recipe is different from that of classic corn tamales in that it omits the baking powder and includes a little puréed epazote leaf. I can’t get epazote in Louisville. I can get cilantro, which makes a nice substitute, but neither of my girls like it so I omit it. If you want the full delicious complexity of a hoochie-mama Juchitán tamal, add a purée of ten epazote leaves (or half a bunch of fresh cilantro, puréed) to your stock when you’re making the masa. I suggest leaving the baking powder in for a lighter product.

But before you even begin, you need to source some banana leaves. They come in large, flat packages like this and can be found in international food stores in the freezer section (they’re used in Indian and southeast Asian cooking as well).

To prepare them for tamal-making, tear them into pieces about 10″ x 10″ (discard any stiff stems), then pass the pieces slowly over a gas or electric stove burner to soften them. You’ll see them change from drab to shiny as the waxes on the leaf melt — that tells you they’re done! For about 12 tamales you’ll need the wrappers, a recipe of corn masa and about two cups of refried beans (preferably homemade).

As with corn husk tamales, you’ll want a bowl of water nearby to dip your fingers. Spoon about 1/4 cup of filling onto the banana leaf. Pat it into an oblong strip about half way up your section of leaf and all the way to one side.

Add couple of teaspoons of refried beans on one half.

To shape, bring up the edge of the wrapper…

…and fold it over, thus enclosing the filling.

Fold in the other side and wrap it around the tamal.

Fold the bottom up…

…and the top down.

The tie it up with a strip of banana leaf. You’ll find that banana leaves can be less uniform than corn husks with all their tears and folds. Get creative with your wrappers. As long as the filling can’t leak out you’re doing well!

Steam them for 75 minutes (60 if you’re using fresh masa).

Remove them from the heat and allow them to cool for about 10 minutes before serving — then serve warm straight from the steamer. They’ll keep very well in the refrigerator for several days and freeze beautifully for several weeks.

Refried bean tamales go great with a little tomatillo salsa. What, you didn’t know you could put salsa on tamales? You can!

11 thoughts on “Making Banana Leaf Tamales”

  1. I love Oaxaca…but I have never been to Juchitan (heehee…it is fun to say…I’m going to tell my wife about it and see if she gives me ‘the look’). The way they use black beans in Oaxacan cuisine is fantastic, so great choice on the filling. I also love the way they use cacao. I dream of being in the cacao shop again…Sorry, tangent. I was going to recommend looking at the cookbook “Oaxaca al Gusto” by Diana Kennedy. Absolutely amazing. AND no cross dressing involved.

    1. Hehe…thanks Derek! I’ll have a look at that book…sounds like fun.


      – Joe

  2. Where did you get the banana leaves in Louisville? I live up river in Madison, IN and often head down that way. It wouldn’t have happened to be the Patel Brothers grocery store by Shalimar? I go to Shalimar as often as possible and if I can pick up banana leaves there it’d be another good excuse to get my belly full of curry.

    1. Ah Madison. Love that town. You’re a lucky fellow to live there!

      In fact it wasn’t the Patel Brothers, though they almost certainly carry banana leaves. I get mine at Value Market down on south Third. That’s my go-to spot for most things international. Though there are a fair number of Asian groceries down that way that also carry banana leaves. They’re more common than you might think!

      – Joe

  3. MMmm I love the idea of making banana leaf tamales! I eat Vietnamese xoi steamed in banana leaves often, so that kinda stuff is right up my alley. The black refried beans look scrumptious, too! (also, lolll @”hoochie mama”).

  4. thank you so much…your tamales were the easiest for me to make.concidering i am learning on my own

    1. Glad to hear it, Kelli!

      And congratulations on your first batch! 😉

      – Joe

  5. Thanks for the tutorial.
    Live in a western suburb of Chicago…able to get some fresh made masa for tamales (3 #’s)from a tortilla factory in Chicago. Did add lard, salt, dried epazote,baking powder & some chicken stock to the masa using a dough hook on our stand mixer. No problem getting banana leaves..just rinsed need to put them over an open fire as they were pliable. Used shredded chicken breast(from Costco rotisserie), homemade salsa verde & thin strips of jack cheese for the filling. Hubby did measure out 4 oz balls of masa, just enough for the banana leaves we had. Ended up with 18 tamales. I did the spreading of the masa(need the water for your fingers), he did the filling and rolling. They came out GREAT! We will be doing these again, especially since we have an easy source for the fresh masa.

    1. Nice going, Linny!

      I grew up in Hinsdale. You probably aren’t far from there!

      – Joe

  6. Hi this is Neeti. I want to make vegetarian tamales but, I do not know where ai can get my ingredients. Please can anyone advise.

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