Going Bananas

After reading my article on Nose to Tail eating a couple of weeks back, one of my friends said “I wish you had written a little bit more about the veggies. Also, I can’t believe you missed the banana. There is no better example of nose to tail cooking in the vegetarian world than the banana”. And absolutely right he was, too. So, let us revisit our no-waste cooking philosophy; but rather than a more holistic, overarching view, we will take a more focused approach, putting the humble banana tree under the limelight.

Let us start with the fruit. When ripe, a banana is delicious and packed with potassium. It can be eaten on its own, or as part of a fruit salad. Bananas also make their way into two popular ice cream desserts. One involves halving the banana lengthwise and making a banana split with scoops of ice creams, sauces and toppings. A more sophisticated dessert involves cutting up the banana and tossing it in a sauce made with brown sugar, butter and cinnamon, then flambeed with rum and banana liqueur. Served warm with a scoop of cold vanilla ice cream, Bananas Foster is a great New Orleans dessert.

When a banana gets overripe, it turns brown and mushy. Although it might be unappealing to eat as it is, overripe bananas are packed with nutrients and flavour. Mash it up and add it to any batter; and the bananas will add moisture and a natural sweetness which helps to cut down on the sugar in the recipe. Some great applications of overripe bananas include the pancakes, cookies and the classic banana bread. You could blitz it up in a milkshake or smoothie. It can also be used to make ice creams.

Banana Bread (Courtesy : Dreams of Cocoa)

Keralans make great use of the banana. A classic Onam dish is the pazham pradhaman, a rich, indulgent payasam made with mashed overripe bananas, date palm jaggery and coconut milk. Banana fritters or pazham pori involve dipping ripe bananas in a batter and frying it in oil. Banana chips are made with starchy raw plantains and are a great alternative to the conventional potato chip. One of my seniors in college is from Kerala and has enthusiastically discussed about the holistic use of the banana in Keralan cooking, which draws a lot of similarities with Bengali cooking. A great example is the use of the banana stem which Keralans call kaambu and Bengalis call thor, but we will get to that in a bit.

Bengalis have some ingenious recipes using unripe green plantain. One of the simplest is the kachkolar dalna, a light curry. It also plays a vital supporting role in numerous veggie medleys like shukto and paanchmishali. A more sophisticated recipe involves boiling the plantains, removing the peel, mashing it up, making balls and frying it in oil. These vegan meatballs are then dunked in a curry to make the all-time favourite kachkolar kofta. We are talking about root to shoot cooking, so there is no way that the peel is getting chucked in the bin. Instead, it is cut into strips and fried quickly with spices to make a charchari, which we talked about last time. A charchari tends to be dry and punchy, while a dalna is milder and more rounded.

Kachkolar koftar dalna (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

Let’s revisit the banana stem we talked about earlier. The outer layers are tough, but the inner pith is comparatively tender. It has a fibrous texture though, and the fibres need to be properly removed before cooking it. These fibres can be used as natural string and can even be made into clothing. As for the thor itself, it can now be cut into pieces and made into a simple vegetable dish, either on its own or as part of a medley. It has a crisp texture with a mild flavour with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

We’re not done yet. The banana leaf, though not edible, is a great platter to serve food on. Many traditional meals, notably the Keralan Sadya, are served on a banana leaf. The tactile sensation of eating off a banana leaf with your hands is a different experience altogether. The banana leaf is also used to cook fish, much like an eco-friendly en papillote. The fish is coated in a spice paste, wrapped in a banana leaf, tied with a string (made out of the stem fibres, perhaps) and steamed. There are many variations found all over India, like the Bengali paturi, the Keralan polichattu and the Parsi patra ni machhi.

Patra ni machhi from Sodabottleopenerwala, Gurgaon

Finally, moving onto the banana blossom, called mocha in Bengali. Prepping it is tricky business. It is the clusters of flowers (with calyx and pistils removed) huddled together between the laryers of large, pink bracts, and the tender core that we’re after. It is chopped up fine and made into a dry mochar ghonto with coconut or fried shrimp. It has a deliciously nutty flavour and goes perfectly with rice. Another dish is mochar paturi, which involves cooking banana blossom coated in a mustard and spice paste, wrapping it in banana leaf, tying the parcel with thread made from fibres of the banana stem, and then steaming it. It is a great example of how different parts of the banana can be brought together into a single dish.

From the fruit to the flower, from the leaf to the stem, every part of the banana makes its way to the dinner table. And if you think we missed out on the roots or rhizome, even they can be used to make medicine. The banana tree is a culinary powerhouse, if you know how to properly tap its potential.

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