I recently had a revelation – We’ve been robbed! Robbed of some incredibly tasty opportunities, I know I am not alone in that for most of my life I ate one kind of dessert banana. Oh yeah, I’d sampled other bananas when I traveled, and was blown away by how sweet and tasty it was in comparison. Those tastings only confirmed what I suspected.
No one knows for sure, but the consensus is that there are at least 1,000 varieties of bananas out there, and I can count on one hand the number I’ve sampled. Are you as outraged as me? Expanding beyond the most common variety, the Cavendish left me unprepared for the diversity that exists. Their textures in no way compares to those common bananas we find in our grocers (sorry Cavendish). So I implore you, take back control, if you are able to seek out some of the different varieties – you will be amazed.
From Papua New Guinea
Bananas are native to tropical Southeast Asia, and probably first domesticated in Papua New Guinea. During medieval times, bananas from Granada were considered among the best in the Arab world, and the expansion of Islam spread the demand for bananas. By 650 AD, Islamic conquerors brought the banana to Palestine, and swiftly points beyond. Now, banana consumption increases significantly in Islamic countries during Ramadan, the month of daylight fasting.
In the 15th and 16th century, Portuguese colonists started banana plantations in the Atlantic Islands, Brazil, and western Africa. Even in the Victorian Era, bananas were not very popular in Europe, although they were available. It took Jules Verne to introduce bananas to his readers in his classic, Around the World in Eighty Days (1872). Today, they are grown in at least 107 countries.
What are they?
Banana is the common name for herbaceous plants of the genus Musa and for the fruit they produce. Bananas come in a variety of sizes and colors when ripe, including yellow, purple, and red. Although fruit of wild species have large, hard seeds, virtually all culinary bananas have only tiny seeds left, as this feature was deemed not appealing. Bananas are classified either:
- dessert bananas (meaning they are yellow and fully ripe when eaten)
- green cooking bananas, often starchier than their dessert counterparts. (plantains) If you’ve never tried them you are in for a treat.
- The banana plant is the largest herbaceous flowering plant, and is often mistaken for trees, but their main or upright stem is actually a pseudostem that grows over 20′ tall, growing from a corm. Each pseudostem produces a single bunch of bananas. After fruiting, the pseudostem dies, but other offshoots develop from the base of the plant. A pseudostem is a false stem composed of concentric rolled or folded blades that support a growing point – onions or leeks are good examples.
Banana fruit develop from the banana heart, in a large hanging cluster, made up of tiers (called hands) with up to 20 fruit per tier. The hanging cluster is known as a bunch. Individual fruit (commonly known as a banana or even the ‘finger’, which makes sense given that the word banana comes from the Arabic work banan which means “finger”. Now giving someone the finger just seems much more pleasant. For a last bit of trivia, bananas grow pointing up, not hanging down.
Just about every part of the banana plant is edible
- The fruit is the most common portion consumed. The degree of ripeness often dictates how it is prepared. During the ripening process, bananas produce a plant hormone called ethylene; it stimulates the formation of amylase, an enzyme that converts starch into sugar, influencing the taste of bananas. The greener bananas contain higher levels of starch, ergo have a “starchier” taste while, yellow bananas taste sweeter due to higher sugar concentrations.
- Banana hearts or flowers are used as a vegetable in some Asian cuisine, either raw or steamed with dips or cooked in soups and curries. The flavor is similar to an artichoke, and as with artichokes.
- The tender core of the banana plant’s trunk is used in Asian cuisine; notably in the Burmese dish mohinga.
- The leaves are favored as a wrap to steam or grill foods in as they impart a subtle sweet flavor.
How bananas are grown and the problems it can cause
Did you know that wild bananas have large, hard seeds? Someone determined that that the fruit with the tiny seeds would be preferred by humans and that is what was pushed onto the markets. Cultivated bananas are parthenocarpic (virgin fruit - sterile and incapable of producing viable seeds. Lacking seeds, propagation requires removing and transplanting part of the underground stem (the corm). Usually this is done by removing a sucker (a vertical shoot that develops from the base of the banana pseudostem) with some roots intact. Because cultivated bananas are spread by conventional vegetative reproduction rather than through sexual reproduction, the Cavendish plants are genetically identical and cannot develop resistance to the disease, so a separate cultivar may be developed as a replacement.
As a non-seasonal crop, bananas are available fresh year-round. Bananas are shipped while not fully ripe. Ripe bananas are far too fragile, and would survive even the shortest trip without evidence of wear and tear. Upon arrival they are taken to special ripening rooms which are air tight and filled with ripening inducing ethylene gas – the yellow color associated with supermarket bananas is a side-effect of this process. They are also stored at lower temperatures. Flavor and texture are also affected by ripening temperature (think of what happens when bananas are stored in the refrigerator). “Tree-ripened” Cavendish bananas have a greenish-yellow appearance which changes to a brownish-yellow as they continue to ripen. While both flavor and texture of tree-ripened bananas is generally considered superior to any green-picked fruit, letting them ripen this way shrinks shelf life to only 7–10 days.
Thank you, Andrew Preston
Here’s a marketing challenge for you. How do you take a strange, tropical fruit (whose shape is shall we say suggestive) and try to convince a nation to fall in love with it? Note, we’re talking Victorian times (not know for progressive views). Was it possible to make this fruit, the banana, as appealing as the beloved apple? A key to achieving this success is keeping prices cheap. Oh by the way is not easy given that bananas are raised in the tropics of South America and Asia, and must travel considerable distances and are known to be difficult travelers. Each issue was a substantial hurdle, but Andrew Preston, an entrepreneur, was more than up to the challenge.
Here’s how he creatively overcame a few of the challenges:
- To counter the sexual suggestiveness of the banana, he printed postcards with prim Victorian women eating them.
- To encourage people to eat the fruit for breakfast, Preston persuaded cereal companies to offer coupons for free milk, redeemable only by those purchasing bananas with the cereal. A first in this sort of marketing strategy.
- He published recipe books with all sorts of creative ways to use bananas.
- He developed a refrigerated distribution networks to move the bananas on the national market.
By the 1920′s, his strategy proved fruitful (pardon the pun) as bananas surpassed apples in popularity. The company founded by Preston in 1899 was called United Fruit (today you know it as Chiquita). The product it was built on is still the most popular, and affordable, fruit in American supermarkets.
Banana commercials have since run the gamut of sexy to ridiculous
For more details, and a fascinating story check out this article, Fruit of the Future by Dan Koeppel in Saveur Magazine.
A Sampling of the Varieties
More than 95% of the bananas sold in the U.S. are Cavendish, the cultivar has dominated the market since the 1970s. But a handful of the thousand or so other banana varieties are becoming available to consumers in this country – As I said, we’ve been robbed, cheated, deprived of our options. Vikram Doctor, of the Economic Times of India points out, that Cavendish may be fine for those unlucky to be American (we don’t know any better), but it is not an option for those lucky Indians, they’ve been spoiled with options – they have 670 varieties alone. You can see his point. For anyone accustomed to the mild taste and mushy texture of the Cavendish, many of these varieties will come as a revelation – sweet and dense, tart like an apple. While you may be lucky enough to find these varieties in your grocer, chances are that you’ll have to seek out the Asian markets.
Cavendish is the most commonly traded banana cultivar in the world, originating in Vietnam and China, it became the primary replacement for the Gros Michel banana in the 1950s when the Gros Michel supply was devastated by Panama disease. It is the bananas you see in your grocer. Because the Cavendish were successfully grown in the same soils as previously affected Gros Michel plants, many presumed that the Cavendish cultivar was resistant to Panama disease. Unfortunately, that assumption proved false. In 2008, reports from Sumatra and Malaysia suggest that these bananas were also vulnerable to Panama disease.
We in the US have not seen the impact yet, because this latest round of Panama diseases has not struck in Latin America (our main supplier), but scientist think its just a matter of time. So we may proceed from Gros Michel to Cavendish to [ ]? The Honduras Foundation for Agricultural Research has cross bred wild bananas, and created new varities resistant to Panama disease bananas. But don’t expect them to taste like the Cavendish of old, some of the new varieties have a distinct apple flavor.
Cavendish Bananas were named in honor of William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, who acquired an early specimen, and from whose hothouses the cultivars were developed for commercial export.
Baby (Dole) or Mini (Chiquita) depending on the brand. These delightfully sweet fruits are so named because they are half the size of a standard Cavendish. More than one cultivar makes up the Baby/Mini category. Chiquita’s product is the Pisang Mas variety, originally from Malaysia; Dole’s Minis include the Ladyfinger and Orito. The Ladyfingers are the sweetest.
Burro are occasionally sold under the name chunky banana, are stubbier and fatter than the Cavendish. The Burro is grown in Mexico and is available at Latin American and Asian markets throughout the US. As with many non-Cavendish varieties, this one takes awhile to ripen(the skin should be yellow). The burro fruit is much denser and firmer than the Cavendish, and I would say, at least from the ones I’ve sampled are more on the starchier side.
Gros Michel, AKA Big Mike, is an export cultivar of banana. Although there are many banana cultivars, Gros Michel was especially suitable for export to non-tropical nations. Less care was required to ship Gros Michel than the familiar Cavendish; less packaging, climate control, or date stamping because its thicker skin is less prone to bruising. Just throw it in a cargo bin and go. Additionally, the Gros Michel was said to be sweeter – all around a better tasting banana than today’s Cavendish. When searching for a replacement, everyone thought the Cavendish would be a colossal failure because it was so tasteless in comparison, but by the time it was introduced, bananas were so integrated in Americana that it did not matter.
The song Yes! We Have No Bananas, written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn in 1923, and for decades was the best-selling sheet music in history. The song speaks of the demise of the Gros Michel. For obvious reasons, it became popular whenever subsequent banana shortages came along.
Manzano is native to Central and South America, belongs to a subcategory known as apple bananas, and the name fits. The texture of a Manzano is firmer than that of the Cavendish, and the scent is complex, marked by a strong tart-apple aroma.
Plantain Actually an entire subset of the fruit, plantains are a kind of banana mainly cooked. Plantains have been on our shores longer than the Cavendish and are a cheap and delicious substitute for potatoes or rice in many Latin American cuisines. For plantain inspiration, I go to My Colombian Recipes
Redis one of the most delicious of the alternative banana varieties available in the US, although it is sometimes confused with a Philippine staple variety called Lacatan with a taste some describe as homemade ice cream.
As Dan Koeppel points out in his article:
” Imagine being able to serve a Ugandan matooke—the comforting dish of steamed plantains eaten all across Africa’s central and eastern highlands—using that country’s native Mongo Love banana. Imagine tasting a coconut-, cardamom-, and raisin-stuffed Nenthra Pazham from India’s Kerala state, without leaving home. Imagine your kids getting their daily potassium from a sweet, bright-orange banana grown on the island of Pohnpei, in Micronesia. … As with coffee, higher-priced cultivars could mean improved profit margins and better benefits for laborers. A diversified crop would provide a hedge against disease.”
Sounds like a winning situation to me.
I learned something new about bananas, and that was that you could eat the peel. The few times I’ve sampled it I found it extremely bitter, but in case you are interested, here’s a few references I came across:
- Rachel Laudan – Banana Peel Stew
- Mama’s Kitchen Green Banana Skin Bhaji – Kachche Kele ke Chilke ki Sabji/Bhaji
- International Vegetarian Union – Banana Skin and Cow Pea