The Story Of Plantains
Those Plantains on your table have quite a history.
Though not a staple in the northern hemisphere,they're are a huge part of almost every diet in the southern one. Many aren't aware they can be eaten raw, and that, though less sweet than a banana, they have a singular taste reminiscent of spiced banana bread when eaten at the right time.
Over 2000 years ago the first westerners learned just how amazing the fruit can be.
Alexander And The Banana
After nearly freezing to death crossing the Hindu Kush, Alexander the Great's 150,000-man army spilled out into the forests of Pakistan in 327 B.C. The men complained constantly of the rain, the savagery of their opponents, and the oppressive jungle, but they found one thing they did like - a curious crescent-shaped fruit.
In the fertile Indus valley they discovered all manner of bananas and plantains- which are technically the berry of an herb, and not the fruit of a tree- from the genus Musa.
The two are not considered botanically distinct, and their spread has been intertwined. They're just different cultivars of the same plant.
One has more moisture and sugar, the other is dryer and more starchy.
Alexander relished the taste of the banana, we are told, and he later brought some back with him to the West.
Ancient accounts spoke of the "naked philosophers" - probably Jain monks of the Digambar school- who Alexander discovered sitting under banana trees.
Pliny the Elder wrote about the fruit in the 1st century, calling them "the fruit of the wise" because the Gymnosophists were said to live off them exclusively.
Though no longer used, they once had a botanical name meaning "banana of the sages."
The West Rediscovers The Banana
Trade spread plantains from their original home in Papua New Guinea, where they were domesticated somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 B.C., out through the rest of Asia.
They arrived in southern China by 200 A.D. and Africa by the 6th century. Arab traders had already brought the fruit to the Middle East by the time Muhammad was preaching, and they spread through the growing Islamic empire that his religion inspired.
In the 15th century Portuguese explorers found bananas in western Africa and planted some back home. From there the fruit was taken to the canary islands by Spanish missionary Friar Tomas de Berlanga, and they were soon growing in Haiti, Mexico, and the rest of South America.
Two Different Animals
Though similar in appearance, the two banana varieties are typically used in very different ways.
Bananas are sweeter and are almost universally eaten raw. Their popularity exploded in the United States in the early 20th century when they began to be shipped in from South America.
Except among Hispanic immigrants, Plantains remain a largely ignored cultivar here, however.
While Americans relied on staples like bread and potatoes, those in the southern hemisphere were relying on the plantain for many of their calories.
They're frequently steamed, boiled, fried and ground into flour.
If you're on a raw food diet this is all useless information.
Luckily for us, they're are also delicious raw. You just have to know how to get them ready.
More Moisture Makes All The Difference.
The fruit taste bland and potato-like when eaten green. Unlike the banana, when yellow and streaked with spots it's still not ripe.
The reason is that plantains average 65 percent moisture and bananas average 83 percent.
Hydrolysis, the process by which starches are converted to sugars, acts fastest in fruit of higher moisture content, so plantains ripen much quicker. They're not ready to eat until hydrolysis has progressed to the point where the skin is completely black, which can take three or four weeks.
Getting to that point can be tricky, which is why I wrote a
guide to ripening plantains here.
This quirky ripening schedule, and a general lack of understanding about the fruit in the west, can be really advantageous for a raw foodist on a budget.
Almost every time I go to the store I see plantains, usually several weeks away from being ripe, thrown into the low-price bin.
They're cheap to begin with, but I can usually get seven of them for 60 cents when this happens.
Just as there are many banana varieties , there are tons of plantain cultivars.
The standard ones found in North American supermarkets have an interesting taste I'd describe as similar to banana bread, but I've also been told they taste nothing like this. I've tried one variety I'd describe as similar to peanut butter.
Even if you love bananas, it's still worth giving them a shot.
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