Banana Heart & Shrimp in Coconut Milk and Esquilino Market

I have been cooped up in my kitchen for the past days cooking endlessly.  I love cooking but I came to the point of wanting to raise both my arms to the air and shout surrender.  Or wave my white dishtowel.   The reason is, I recently discovered that there is a fresh produce Asian market in Rome and I bought more fresh food than I can handle.

After years of trying to plant tropical plants in pots, nursing them from the cold, worrying over them when the temperature drops too low or there's a sudden rare snowfall, running outside to protect them from the  harsh winds, worrying when we go on long vacations if I find them shriveled up because of lack of water and praying silently to please show the little bumps in the trunk in springtime to show some life, I had been both successful and unsuccessful. My list of worries is endless but I think I am over that because my surviving tropical plants have already adapted to the Roman weather and they are all reaching their first decade. I overcame my disappointment with the ones who didn't make it and I am less protective now with the survivors.  They flourished and give me fruit all-year round.

Some of my surviving plants are the bananas.  Different kinds but none of the ones I really wanted.  I found this seed shop in the UK that sends abroad.  I spent days looking for the botanical names of the plants I wanted, poring over the shop's lists and studying how to grow them.  It was Gardening 101. 

How old are my potted bananas?  Much older than my eldest son.  And still, I am waiting for those banana hearts to come out.  Nothing.  I am convinced that I bought the wrong kinds.  

A few days ago, while searching for pandan leaves that I had grown fixated with, I chanced upon a picture of a banana heart.  In Italy.  In Rome.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  I blinked once, twice, thrice.  Yes, my eyes were not playing tricks on me.  The banana heart was being sold in a market in Rome.   It's in the multiethnic  district of Rome.

The indoor Nuovo Mercato Esquilino is formerly known (and still popularly known) as Piazza Vittorio Market even if they are not located in the same spot.  The outdoor market used to be in Piazza Vittorio until the city cleaned up the piazza and gave back the piazza to the people to enjoy with a nice park.  The market was moved to a building nearby called Nuovo Mercato Esquilino at via Principe Amadeo.  

Opening times:  
Mon, Wed, Thurs, Sat.:  5:00 to 15:00
Tuesdays & Fridays:  5:00 to 17:00
Here, I found a plethora of Asian vegetables and fruits.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  I came prepared with my husband.  I knew I was going to buy a lot.   And the first thing I sought out was the banana heart.  It shone like gold when the vendor pulled it out among the rows of vegetables.   Years of patience and I got my trophy.

It felt like Sunday, my Mom's market day when I was young.  I remember seeing all the fresh vegetables and fruits arranged by groups on the kitchen table, ready to be cleaned and put away.   With the image frozen in my memory, I grabbed the big basket of veggies and fruits and arranged them by groups on the table outside.  I called my family and declared to them that we were going to have a quick lesson on Asian fresh produce. 

They were all wide-eyed to see unfamiliar things. One by one, I explained what they saw on the table and gave their cousins' names in Italy.  The showstopper was the banana heart.  It always does get the attention. 

So after a long overseas call to my aunt about cooking, here is my long-awaited banana heart dish.  Almost a decade in waiting and every single bite appreciated. 

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Banana Heart & Shrimp in Coconut Milk

Serves 4 (as a side dish)
  • 1 banana heart, washed
  • 1/2 cup rock salt for cleaning the banana heart  
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 chili, seeded & chopped finely
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped finely
  • 1/2 onion, chopped finely
  • 75 grams pork, cut into strips 
  • 250 grams small shrimp
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • salt
  • pepper
  1. Peel the banana bracts and undeveloped blossoms away.  Discard everything or you can also keep some of the bracts for serving the food.  Keep on peeling until you reach the whitish bract which should already be tender.  
  2. Slice horizontally.  Discard both ends.  The sap should come out so it will be sticky.  If your banana heart is big, quarter it vertically before slicing horizontally.
  3. Put the sliced banana heart in a bowl and add rock salt.  Open the slices with your fingers as you squeeze them with the salt.  Squeeze them hard to send away the sap.  When they are all open, rinse very well with cold water under the tap.  Squeeze out excess water.
  4. Warm up a saucepan with extra virgin olive oil.  When it's hot, put the chili, garlic & onion.  After about 2 minutes, add the pork.  Sautè until they become golden.  
  5. Add the banana heart.  Sautè for 3 minutes then add the vegetable broth.  Let it boil.  
  6. Add the shrimp.
  7. Pour the coconut milk.  Cook  for 10 minutes or until the banana heart is tender.
  8. Season with salt & pepper.
  9. Serve hot.