Here’s a curious fact: the banana is actually not a fruit at all, but really a giant broadleaf herb.
Now grown throughout the world, it is believed to be one of the first plants gathered and cultivated by humans.
Edible bananas originated in south-east Asia in the region stretching from New Guinea to India and were carried across the Indian ocean to Africa then onto the Caribbean and other tropical areas where they proliferated.
Joseph Banks, the botanist who travelled with Captain Cook to Australia, reported the banana growing wild in Queensland. He described it as a “kind of Wild Plantain whose fruit was so full of stones that it was scarcely eatable.” Today’s fruits are the result of much selection and hybridisation. The seeds (“stones”) have been bred out so that they are now sterile and only reproduce with human help.
We’re not very adventurous in the way we use bananas in our cooking in Australia, even though they are available all year round. Mostly we just peel and eat them, or mash and slice them and put them in sandwiches. Over the past few years, and most especially at the start of the Coivid19 Pandemic a couple of months ago, toasted Banana Bread (which is essentially a cake) has become wildly popular.
The opposite is true in the Caribbean where they are used in so many ways that they could be considered the national fruit. There, you’ll find ripe bananas used in fruit salads, cakes, breads, pies, cocktails, wines, flambes, milkshakes and sweet drinks.
I well remember my visit years ago to The Landing on Harbour Island in the Bahamas where local sugar bananas were used by Aussie chef Jenny Learmonth to make fabulous banana fritters, smoothies and ice cream.
Green bananas are also used extensively. Sliced thinly, deep-fried and salted, they’re a popular snack, and are also cooked and eaten as a vegetable – boiled whole in the skin (1 tsp vinegar is added to the boiling water to prevent the pot turning black) then mashed, or served piping hot with melted butter and finely chopped chillies.
An interesting vegetable side dish is made by slicing boiled green banana lengthwise then sousing it in lime juice and water and mixing with chopped onions, cucumbers, parsley and red capsicum.
Banana leaves, steamed until they are soft and dark, are used on several islands to wrap sweetmeats like ‘conkies’ and ‘pastelles’. A similar method is used in various south-east Asian cuisines where glutinous rice is mixed with various flavourings, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. The leaves can also be cut and used to line plates and trays – or stand them in a long vase for an elegant addition to a room.
In other parts of the world bananas are also used to make vinegar, banana essence, banana flour, banana essence, flour, starch and low alcohol beer.
As you can see, bananas are very versatile. Some more ideas – make a Banana Cardamom Galette or try making a banana crumble (substituting bananas for the ubiquitous apple); dip peeled whole bananas in melted chocolate, insert a paddle-pop stick in one end and freeze – the kids will thank you!; slice peeled green bananas into spears, toss in a plastic bag with a little turmeric and salt, fry in peanut oil and use as a garnish for chicken or lamb curry.
A small hand of bananas makes an attractive table decoration – choose not quite ripe bananas so that you can eat and cook with them once they’ve ripened. Ah, such versatility!