Thursday, February 19, 2009

Banana Banano

Banana Trunk
Plantain tree trunk with a leaf pulling off.

So if you haven't heard yet, the plantain or banana tree is not a tree. It's an herb, a very large herb.

It sure looks like a tree, a bunch of leaves on top of a large trunk (the one above is about 12 feet tall), but the trunk isn't wood, so it's not a tree.

Banana Bunch

The tree flowers and produces 'hands' of bananas or plantains.

Bananas and plantains belong to the same genus, Musa, so they're closely related. Some insist that plantains can't be called bananas, while others call all the fruit of this genus 'banana' but some are 'desert bananas' others 'bananitos' (small bananas), etc.

Banana Shoots
New plantain trees sprouting from the base of existing trees.

After the tree has flowered (after 1 to 3 years of growth depending on climate, soil and species) and producing one stalk of fruit, it will dry up and fall over leaving other banana trees sprouting from it's roots.

Dead Banana Leaves

Banana leaves are often cut when they are young and used as disposable plates, food packaging and wrappers for steamed and boiled tamales.

If the leaves aren't not taken when they first unfurl, they generally shred in the wind.

Banana Structure

Unripe plantains are most comparable to potatoes (in the US). They provide starch and just as there are a thousand variations of potato recipes, there are for plantains as well. The most common are fried (like hashbrowns, french fries, chips or tater tots) or boiled (like a boiled or baked potato).

Banana Swirl

The banana most imported into the US is the Cavendish. Nicaragua is not a major producer of this type of banana, although it was part of the banana wars of the last century with the US which were partly about bananas, but mostly about economic control of a region.

Nicaraguans eat a small sweet banana that is very similar to the Cavendish. The main difference? The name. They're called banano in Spanish (yeah, they're not really different at all).

Two Peas in a Pod

The bananas above are not Cavendish, but ripe plantains and will be fried to make maduro, a sweet, soft dish commonly eaten with salty fried cheese.

Siamese twin bananas like the one picture below are pretty frequent on non-industrial trees (these are from a tree in the backyard).

Siamese Twins

Tostones are a common way to eat unripe plantains. After being chopped into short lengths, they are fried for a short time, removed, squashed, and fried again. Sprinkle with salt and eat with ketchup!


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