Food

Adventurous Eaters Will Love Whole Fish Grilled in Banana Leaves

A photograph of the author, Molly Mitchell.

By Molly Mitchell

January 31, 2020

Top-down view of a woman wrapping a red whole tilapia in a banana leaf, next to a wooden bowl full of fish with cilantro on top.
Digna Magdelena Silva Narváez wraps fish in banana leaves near Joya de las Sachas, Ecuador.

Digna Silva and her husband Roberth Andrade are chocolate-farming entrepreneurs living in the rainforest of Ecuador. But they need to make money while their chocolate trees grow, so they've been dabbling their feet in aquaculture. Fish farming has made a huge difference in their family's life – the difference between struggling to put food on the table and having a healthy dinner within arms' reach at all times. Andrade and Digna Silva's local style of preparation is unique and delicious, and we were lucky enough to get a demonstration.

“The first time we stocked the fingerlings, we didn’t even know how to fish,” laughed Roberth Andrade. “The first time, we only caught a couple of fish. The second time we went through with the net, we doubled our yield with four fish. So, we went to see a neighbor and we learned properly.”

Now, Andrade and Digna Silva sell a batch of 200 to 300 pounds of fish every five months, and they can fish their ponds for their personal diets any time they want. The couple does the work to get the most out of their fish — they clean the fish before selling for a higher price, and they can make collagen out of the fish scales, which they sell as refrigerated gelatin. And since the family got their fishpond, they get to eat grilled fish whenever they want. 

A man and a woman pull a fishing net full of fish from their pond.

Net Fishing

Roberth Andrade and Digna Silva harvest by net fishing. Their fishing net has weights on the bottom and floats on the top, and they dredge the pond to get the fish.

A woman holds up a silver-grey fish with an orange belly.

Local Flavors

Silva and Andrade raise tilapia and a type of native fish called macachama.

A wooden bowl of cleaned fish topped with long cilantro leaves.

Spice It Up

The fish is cleaned, scaled and flavored with a native type of cilantro.

A woman's hands wrapping a whole fish in a banana leaf.

Wrap in Banana Leaves and Slap on the Grill

They grill their fish whole, wrapped up in banana leaves.The banana leaf is tied by taking the spine of the leaf and pulling tendrils from it like string cheese. These tendrils can be used just like string to tie the leaf securely around the fish. The leaves don’t burn away on the grill, rather they keep the fish inside from drying out as they cook. Unlike with tin foil, there’s no uncompostable trash leftover from cooking.

A man watches over leaf-wrapped fish cooking on a grill placed on top of a concrete outdoor fire pit.

Taste the Rainforest

Fish grill on the coals of an outside firepit until they smell irresistible and the fish has turned opaque. All the effort is worth it – breathing in the tropical aromatic steam as you unwrap your banana leaf to reveal the meal inside is an unforgettable way to start a meal.