Growing up, I was never that wild about bananas. I ate them occasionally, both raw and peeled, or cut up and served atop breakfast cereal, but they were never that dazzling. The flavoring, too, I found disappointing, whether in candy, or fruity drinks. (There is one exception to this—I do inexplicably like the banana-like taste in some hefeweizen (wheat) beers.) As I aged, I began to notice that I evidently have a very mild food allergy to bananas, as they tend to give me a slight upset stomach.
Therefore, when I first heard about plantains, I wasn’t optimistic. It was in a Jamaican restaurant. Obviously, in Jamaican cuisine plantains are a common entrée side, so in many cases it’s difficult to eat Jamaican dishes and not try plantains.
When I researched plantains for this post, I learned that I had some misconceptions about them. For one, they’re not just casually similar to bananas. They’re very closely related, and are barely subspecies of each other. Botanists don’t technically differentiate the two. In essence, it’s like the difference between a Golden Delicious and a
Cortland apple. Plantains are just starchier, and less sweet
than what we refer to as bananas, which are almost always the Cavendish
Bananas/plantains are an ancient food source for humans, as they were domesticated between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago, starting in
Papua New Guinea. Since then they’ve spread all over the
tropical world, and are staples in the Caribbean, parts of Central and South
America, and West and Central Africa. In fact, they’re the tenth most important
food staple in the world today. One of
the reasons for this is that they produce fruit all year round. Nutritionally, they’re good sources of
potassium, fiber, Vitamin B-6, and they also have some Vitamin C.
The ways they’re prepared are many and varied. They’re eaten raw (in banana form), fried, roasted, grilled, and boiled, and as a side, or mixed in with soups and stews. Sometimes they’re mashed up as an easy food for babies. And it’s not just the fruit, either—particularly in
Southeast Asia, their
shoots and flowers are consumed in salads.
the broad leaves are commonly used as natural plates.
I’m happy to report that I really enjoyed plantain, despite my misgivings. As I recall, they were served as a roasted side in that Jamaican restaurant, and I thought they were quite tasty. Nicely starchy, and their flavor was reminiscent of a potato. I’ve had them several times since, and they continue to complement meals very well. Fried and salted as plantain chips (or crisps, for any English readers) was also good. I recently had a canned
Republic stew called sancocho, which
featured both green bananas and plantains.
This was only okay, but I blame that more on the other ingredients, and
the stew format isn’t one of my favorite meal types, too. To be fair, I should try bananas cooked as
well—maybe I would like them better that way.
Plantains/bananas have a few odd attributes. For example, despite the full grown plant size, it’s actually a herbaceous plant, and not a tree. (They’re the largest herbaceous plant, in fact.) Also, even though their appearance and size make this seem strange, to botanists the fruit is technically a berry. Finally, because of their relatively high concentration of a naturally occurring potassium-40 isotope, bananas/plantains are radioactive. Clearly it’s a small amount, nothing to worry about, but still, it’s weird.
Wrapping up, the Frank Silver/Irving Cohn novelty song, “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” written in 1923, was for a time the best selling sheet music. And in both Thai and Malay folklore, banana plants contain a spirit which manifests itself as a young woman.