Though the banana leaves themselves are not edible, they're used to wrap and cook food and they protect the food inside from burning. Banana leaf wrappers impart a slight anise flavor to the foods they hold. You can find banana leaves in Asian and markets, but if fresh banana leaves are not available in your area, you can use substitutes.
Dried corn husks are wrapped around tamales for steaming. These are sold in Latin American grocery stores and well-stocked supermarkets. Soak the corn husks in water for 30 minutes to make them pliable enough to wrap around the food. Discard the corn husks after cooking, as these, like banana leaves, are not edible.
Parchment paper is a silicone-coated paper which is heat resistant up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Look for it next to the aluminum foil in supermarkets. Do not confuse it with wax paper, which cannot be used for cooking. Place the food in the middle of a square of parchment paper. The coating on both sides of the paper also makes it nonstick. Fold the edges of the paper up and over the food to cover it. Secure the paper in place with staples and steam the food according to your recipe. Discard the parchment after cooking.
Aluminum foil makes a good substitute for banana leaves. Of course the foil will not add any flavor to the food while it steams, and it must be coated with cooking spray or oil on the inside to keep food from sticking. Center the food in a large square of aluminum foil. Place a second piece on top and crimp the edges together to seal the foil packet. Steam the food according to your recipe and throw away the aluminum foil after cooking.
Lotus leaves are large, up to 2 feet in diameter, and work well for wrapping around large servings of food. These leaves, like banana leaves, add flavor to the food steamed inside. Because they are most often sold dried, soak the leaves in water for one hour before wrapping around food and steaming according to your recipe. The lotus leaves are not edible, so discard them after cooking.
Cabbage or Lettuce Leaves
Cabbage and lettuce leaves are edible substitutions for banana leaves, but most will not want to eat the cooked lettuce or cabbage due to the texture they take on during cooking. Wrap and cook the food as you would with banana leaves, using large, clean cabbage or lettuce leaves. The outer leaves from the head work best as they are larger than the leaves closer toward the heart of the head.