RER 9.14.12
Plantains… Aren’t they just bananas?

They do have multiple personalities, sweet and savory, but I wouldn’t call them crazy!

Sweet bananas or dessert bananas are the kinds that we eat raw generally, they are soft and sweet. However, what are called plantains are produced to be cooked. The distinguishing factor, even though the two are in the same Musa genus, is how they are consumed. [1] As wild as it is, bananas and plantains are herbs! These fruits belong to the same plant family as cardamom, ginger, and turmeric, [2] Zingiberales. [3] Even though banana and plantain plants, unlike other herbs, grow to be as high as some trees, they are not woody and what appears to be the stem is really just the base of very large leaf stalks. This then makes them technically “gigantic herbs.”[4] But another thing to blow your mind about banana and plantain plants; this type of plant is sterile, which means that the flower reproduces without fertilization.[5]

Plantains are wild and bananas… but I still wouldn’t call them crazy.

Plantains have a large and long history, and their consumption occurs all around the world. Like the banana, plantains are believed to have first originated in southeast Asia, and were cultivated in India by around 500 B.C. It is interesting to note that plantains now are really scarce in the region where they originated. The plant was probably devastated by disease and never replanted in southeast Asia.[6]

The vast spread of the plantain is mainly due to trade, travel and exploration. As the plant has great nutritional resources, the plantain was a valuable food source to wherever it went, and was eventually adopted and planted. Travelers spread the “berry” all over via ancient trade routes to Africa[7] as well as around Australia and New Guinea.[8]  Alexander the Great stumbled upon plantains during his campaign to conquer the world while in India, around 327 B.C. and brought them back to Europe because he noted their cultural and nutritional significance.[9] By 1000 A.D., the plantain made its way further eastward towards Japan and Samoa. The plantain arrived in the Caribbean and Latin America much much later in as late as the 1500s.[10] It is said that a Portuguese monk brought the plantain to the Caribbean in 1516, but they were being traded in the Canary Islands previous to that.[11]

Trade and exploration are also what brought them to the “New World,” South and Central America. Along with other goods, plantains were introduced and planted in the Americas, and they flourished. It was quickly realized, as plantain farms multiplied, that this crop was much more reliable and practical than others. Many more plantains can be harvested than potatoes or even wheat on the same amount of land. Plantains became a more economical crop with a higher yield and a longer growing season.[12]

Its widespread availability and long growth season make plantains an incredibly reliable food source. Plantains fruit all year round, which means constant and most time consistent supply. It has become a staple in many tropical areas, like regions of Africa[13]  and south America. Across the world, bananas and plantains are the fourth largest caloric source, with nearly half a billion people relying on them. They are only beaten out by rice, milk and wheat. For these half a billion people, plantains make up the bulk and the foundation of their daily carbohydrate intake.[14] This means that this crop is an extremely important part of a lot of people’s lives, and is an herb people depend on for a large percentage of their daily carb intake. Each plantain has about 225 calories, depending on size, and also make up about 20% of the daily value of carbohydrates.[15]

Throughout the history of the banana and the plantain, medicinal value has also been attributed to the plant. Not only is it a huge food source, the medical aspects of the plantain are also relevant. The discovery of the benefits of plantains for bowel and stomach issues date back thousands of years. The ancient Persians and Arabians used the giant herb to help combat dysentery as well as many other intestine and stomach issues. Alexander the Great, who introduced the plant to Europe, used plantains for headaches, while in China, they were used for rheumatism, infertility and other stomach issues. It has also been revealed through today’s science, that many uses of plantains throughout the ages and the world have a strong scientific base. [16]

Back to the important part, eating this gigantic, humongous herb… Plantains are eaten a zillion different ways in many different places all over the world, but they are rarely consumed raw. The plantain would have to be very very dark brown, near black to be eaten without being cooked. Countries in Africa, the Caribbean, in South America, and even here, boil, stew, fry, sautee, mash… you name it to make plantains more palatable in effort to extract the nutritional value. Each culture that uses the plantain, uses it in a different variety of ways, but in the end, it still is a worldly staple.

Here, I am most exposed to some of the Latin ways of preparing plantains. These are my favorite ways so far, to get out and to even make at home!
RER 9.14.12
These crunchy double fried treats are made when the plantain is a fierce green, like it looks to be not ripe enough to even touch. The green color means that the inside fruit is not going to be sweet, but it has a more startchy and savory taste and feeling, kind of like a potato. Tostones are super easy to make and super easy to demolish. All these little guys need is a little slicing, a little hot vegetable oil, a little frying, a little smashing and a little more frying. And at the end, a little salt. They are crunchy and crispy, feeling startchy like potato chips, but a beautiful golden color. The salt heightens the addictive character of the fried morsels.

RER 9.24.12
Are kind of like the sticky sweet partner to tostones. Maduros are best when the plantains are super super bruised looking, almost brown. You know like, when the bananas on the counter are too soft to even touch brown. Unlike our typical banana variety, the brown, speckled and bruised plantain is not nearly as soft and smushy. They are much softer than their bright green counter parts, making them much much sweeter. These start off the same way as preparing the tostones, cut and fry. Somehow they produce completely different reactions with the oil. The brown and sweet plantains, do not crisp up in the same way as the green variety. The intense sugars browns and becomes caramelized and sticky. However, maduros are not deep fried like tostones.

Plantains are really as diverse as all the places they are grown and consumed. There are a lot of different varieties and strains that have been modified or grown throughout the world. The way they are prepared and eaten is almost as diverse and vast. It is amazing how one little herb, well not so little, can feed so many different kinds of people in so many different kinds of ways, and become such an important cultural as well as nutritional entity.

Don't forget to check out my sources page for more reading on the crazy large herb, the plantain!

[1] wikipedia.org “Plantain”
[2] elvalleinformation.wordpress.com “Bananas and Plantains, Origins, History and Differences”
[3] Taxonomy Browser (Zingiberales)
[4] Wikipedia.org “Musa”
[5] elvalleinformation.wordpress.com “Bananas and Plantains, Origins, History and Differences”
[6] J.K. Allen “History of Plantains” ehow.com
[7] wikipedia.org “Plantain”
[8] J.K. Allen “History of Plantains” ehow.com
[9] J.K. Allen “History of Plantains” ehow.com
[10] wikipedia.org “Plantain”
[11] J.K. Allen “History of Plantains” ehow.com
[12] J.K. Allen “History of Plantains” ehow.com
[13] wikipedia.org “Plantain”
[14] elvalleinformation.wordpress.com  “Bananas and Plantains, Origins, History and Differences”
[15] Nutritiondata.self.com “Plaintains”
[16] Margaret L. Ahlborn, “Plantain” http://www.herballegacy.com

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