Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Consider the Banana

Above: Bananas that look small to Americans, but just right to South Asians.
Below: A variety of bananas for sale.

My eating habits go through cycles and fixations. In winter, I can happily live on roasted root vegetables, stews and soups. A few weeks ago, I realized I hadn’t had a banana in quite some time, and ever since then, I feel a little bereft if I don’t have some on hand.

I love them with yogurt, cooked into hot cereal, with Nutella, mashed up on a plate with peanut butter, or au natural. Last week I was sick and seeking bananas to soothe me, but the store I slunk into had only hard-as-rocks, green-as-spring monstrosities. I bought a four-pack of banana cream pie pudding, which surely contained no actual banana anything, and I ate all of it within 36 hours.

Bananas, in addition to being full of fiber and potassium and the world’s largest herb, are a most international fruit. It is generally agreed that they originated in Malaysia, were brought to India by travelers in the 6th century BC (they’re mentioned in Buddhist Pali texts from that time) and tasted with delight by Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC.

Our yellow friend took a long, leisurely sojourn around the world: Madagascar, Africa, Guinea, Portugal, the Canary Islands, Santo Domingo, Central America, North America. Arabian slave traders are said to have bestowed the name we know it by: In Africa and Southeast Asia, bananas have always been about as long as a finger, and “banan” is Arabic for “finger.”

By 1870, they were popular enough in the U.S. to be described in the Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information as, “…eaten raw, either alone or cut in slices with sugar and cream, or wine and orange juice. … roasted, fried or boiled, and are made into fritters, preserves, and marmalades.” Tinfoil wrappings were used to dispel the suggestive nature of the fruit (this was the Victorian era, after all).

In Hinduism, bananas, other fruits, flowers, incense and other items are offered to gods and goddesses in a process of giving and receiving that is central to the faith. The items are placed in front of the idol as bhoga, meaning something enjoyable, and prayers are offered to the god or goddess. It is then received and consumed by the faithful as prasada, a blessing or mercy.

When I was in India last year, I tried four different kinds of bananas, all small, quite sweet, with slightly different flavors. It would be interesting to set a wine taster loose on them, to see what notes they can detect -- they are all separate cultivars, from different areas of the country.

The U.S. is somewhat unique in using only the fruit of the plant. Banana flowers are eaten raw and cooked in parts of Southern India, and as in other parts of Asia, the leaves are often used as plates. I've eaten sushi from a banana leaf in Tokyo, and the food at our wedding reception in India was served this way; the photo below is of some of our guests.

Here’s a bit of etiquette in case you ever find yourself eating from a banana leaf: The point of the banana leaf should be on your left. If you are attending a happy occasion, you should fold your leaf in half toward you when you’re finished to signify that you wish to return to another happy occasion. If you’re attending a funeral, you should fold it in half away from you to indicate that you don’t wish to return to such an unhappy occasion.

Sources: britannica.com, banana.com, “Banana” by Dan Koeppel


  1. Most illuminating. The Auston-Babcocks are unable to proceed into the day without bananas. I would love to try the other varieties you describe. I might refer you to the Wikipedia entry, which reveals that the bananas our (American) parents enjoyed was an entirely different variety, wiped out by disease around 1960. The Cavendish banana served up rock-hard in Schnucks today may be gone within 20 years...explaining that whole Mayan calendar freak-out thing...

  2. Yummy in the tummy every time, bananas! The best I ever had were some small apple-bananas that grew in the back yard of a house we rented on the Big Island of Hawaii. My only complaint, the timing. You try to buy them early enough for them to last, but they quickly move to mush and are only good for smoothies or banana bread! My sister puts all her "ripe" bananas in the freezer to use later in cooked recipes. However, there's just something creepy to me to open the freezer and see a lot of black bananas staring out at me.

    As always, enjoyed the post!


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