Where did plantains originate?

El Valle de Anton, Panama. El Valle the Volcanic Village. El Valle’s History, Attractions and Information

Banana Wars
Dates: 1899-1901
American soldier deaths: 3,216
The Banana Wars consisted of a series of conflicts surrounding the United States’ presence in the Caribbean and Central America. Given the United Fruit Company’s strong commercial interests in banana farms, American lawmakers wanted to maintain their sphere of influence in what some called our “tropical empire.” This meant occupations, interventions, and police actions in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti,

Bananas and plantains probably originated in New Guinea explaining the Panamanian euphemism Guineo used for the berry. The banana has been around for about 9000 years and belongs to the same plant family as ginger, turmeric and cardamom, and these flavors are easily discernible in many of the local noncommercial guineos. The Buddhist considers it the plant of futility because its flowers are sterile; it reproduces without fertilization and then dies. The Quran identifies it as the mythical tree of knowledge that produced the forbidden fruit and explains the Linnaean name Musa Paradisiacal. Many cultures thought the berry was a gift from the gods and the Arabic term mauzah banan, meaning little or delicate finger banana, was appropriate since the early cultivars were much smaller than today’s hybrids. Images of Buddha meditating often use a banana field as a backdrop and the grapes of Eschol mentioned in the bible may have been bananas. Both the Arabic and Western name probably came from one of the many Africa terms that include banna, gbana, bana, abana, funana and banana. Plantains, which are bananas, have their own naming myths. The Spanish may have seen a likeness between the plane (plateno) tree of Iberia and the banana bush hence the name OR even though there was no resemblance at all, they both grew in such profusion they used the name facetiously. Plantains have less moisture and sugar and a higher starch content then bananas and exhibit a much higher peel to flesh ratio. When preparing plantains and green bananas peel and soaked in a little salted water to remove any bitter tasting latex before cooking.

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In 1469, the Portuguese recorded their discovery of the banana in West Africa. Fifty years later a Spanish Brother named Thomas de Berlanga, who also discovered the Galapagos, introduced them to Santa Domingo and then took them to Panama, when he became its fourth Bishop in 1534. Bananas, red ones, arrived in North America in 1804 when they arrived from Cuba and the first commercial imports landed in 1870. At the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition, they sold for a dime each and guards had to be stationed so fair goers wouldn’t rip up the exotic display plants for souvenirs. Bananas, generally unknown at the time, would become widely popular within a decade or two since they and apples were the only available fresh winter fruits of the period. The American builders of the Costa Rican railroad obtained 500 yards of easement on each side of their newly laid track. By 1871, they were planting the progenitors of the Central American banana industry along its length. The banana became a symbol of American affluence and freedom that reached the masses, albeit accompanied with instruction on how to peel in such publications as The Scientific American, by the beginning of the twenty century. In addition, if you were a child or a pregnant woman arriving at Ellis Island your first taste of America might have been a banana and some Jell-O if you traveled in steerage or a hand of the fruit and a logoed Jell-O mold if you disembarked via the first or second tier gangway.

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The new technologies of refrigeration and steam made shipping fruit, tourists and labor around the Caribbean Rim easy and the first refrigerated banana boat, the SS Venus, sailed to the states in 1903. By 1915, United Fruit Company’s Great White Fleet had almost a hundred ships under its flag making it the largest privately owned navy in the world. Although the name was originally used by President Teddy Roosevelt, for a fleet of warships sent on a global tour to showcase American big stick might, it was usurped by The United Fruit Company when it painted its ships reflective white to protect their banana cargoes from the rays of the tropical sun. By 1930 El Pulpo, or The Octopus, as the American banana interests were known, had deforested 2 million acres of rainforest for banana plantations, carried 72,000 Caribbean passengers enticed by a series of movie theater travelogues, and watched as the US conducted more than 20 known “peacekeeping” forays into the various Banana Republics of Central America. The fruit has become an American icon as exemplified by Josephine’s Bakers Parisian performance, the ever popular elementary school educational film “Journey to Banana Land” and televisions dancing Chiquita banana of the nineteen fifties. Furthermore, both Donovan and the Berkeley Barb were right, electrical bananas and mellow yellow peels do contain serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine all psychotropic compounds.

Bananas are the fourth largest caloric source in the world surpassed only by rice, wheat and milk with half a billion people depending on them for their daily foundation carbohydrate. The plant is actually a bush/herb not a tree, the banana is actually a berry whose pseudo stem can reach 40 feet and support leaves ten feet long and three feet wide. Eighty percent of the annual banana crop of lower America there and the remainder exported mostly to the US. North Americans eat 28, Central Americans 500 and East Africans almost 1000 pounds annually not including plantains. Although mangoes are the world’s favorite fruit, bananas are the North American favorite followed by apples, grapes and oranges.

Unfortunately Mono cultural plantings, be they coffee, sugar, oil palms, corn, soy or rubber, clear cut whole forests changing the lives of the locals by limiting the availability of traditional foods and, like animal feed lots, trigger huge plant plagues. Bananas are a prime example where modern agriculture practice that replaces vegetation and native life forms with monoculture crop production. Inevitably, the crops abandoned and the land is then repopulated by species completely different from the original. All was well in banana land until about 50 years ago when the Big Mike/Gros Micheal cultivar died out from“Panama disease”. So in 1959 Central American growers cut back millions of acres of rainforest and planted a Cavendish hybrid known as the “Jamaican Valery”, the banana we all know and peel today. But unfortunately that Cavendish derivative is still disease and pest prone and requires the aerial application of pesticides, fungicides and fumigates that poison the waters, kill the birds and render the unprotected workers sterile. In addition, today’s growers face a new African variety of the Panama disease that is likely to destroy the current Cavendish cultivar within ten years and are vigorously researching a red variety to replace it. That’s right, it’s likely that your child will soon be peeling and eating a red banana that will be as different from yours as yours were from your grandmothers and yes they used to taste better.

Bananas, the largest herb in the world, are monocarpic … they die after fruiting and parthenocarpic … they producing both male and female flowers. They require no insects, birds or bats to pollinate instead reproducing vegetatively from perennial underground corms naturally or via man by the hand planting of volunteer suckers or shoots from the plants base. These underground corms can continual to produce for up to 10 seasons and since these rhizomes grows laterally the plants are often said to walk as they sprout farther and farther from the parent plant. There are about 100 varieties growing in the tropics; their leaves are used for wrapper and plates, their buds pickled, their flowers sautéed and their “berries’ eaten. It takes anywhere from 14 to 18 months from eruption to harvest and with its heavy purple blossom drooping towards the ground, and the attached crown of “berries” growing above it, the plant appears off worldly alien to the first time observer. Each plant can produce anywhere from one to four hundred fruits that take about three months to reach the green harvest state after flowering takes place. Bananas are extremely prolific and a plot yielding over 4000 pounds a year would only produce 98 of potatoes or 33 of wheat from the same sized acreage. Bananas, picked and shipped green, are gassed with ethylene in huge warehouses to accelerate the ripening process when they reach North America.


BANANA AND PLANTAIN. Bananas, including the dessert banana and the cooking types or plantains, are cultivated in more than 120 countries throughout the tropics and subtropics, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) current statistics. In terms of total production the banana ranks after oranges, grapes, and apples, but when plantain production is added, it becomes the world’s number one fruit crop. While commercial production of bananas is oriented to the fresh export trade destined mainly for temperate-zone markets, plantains and even unripe bananas—consumed boiled, fried, roasted, or even brewed—are a major staple food throughout the tropics.

The origin of the word “banana” probably derives from languages spoken in the coastal regions of Sierra Leone at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It is important to note that none of the major producing regions seem to have incorporated clear linguistic distinctions between dessert and cooking bananas in their languages. The Spanish word plátano— from which the English term “plantain” may have derived (Simmonds, p. 57)—does not have a precise origin but is employed throughout the Spanish-speaking world and its meaning changes with location: in most of Central and South America, while the word banana is used as in English, plátano is reserved for the plantain, whereas in Mexico and Spain—the latter including the Canary Islands, from which the banana is thought to have been carried to the New World (Galán Saúco, p. 9)—it is used for either bananas or plantains. The situation in Southeast Asia is somewhat different, where vernacular names do not differentiate between dessert and cooking bananas (kluai in Thailand, pisang in Malaysia and Indonesia, saging in the Philippines, chiao in China, or choui in Vietnam) (Valmayor et al., p. 13).


According to Chesman, who in 1948 pioneered the modern classification of bananas (Simmonds, p. 53), most edible bananas and plantains belong to the Eumusa section of the genus Musa (family Musaceae) and derive from the species Musa acuminata Colla and M. balbisiana Colla, which correspond roughly to two species originally described by Linnaeus in his general botanical work Systema Naturae (1758) to which he gave the names M. sapientum and M. paradisiaca, the first referring to a plant producing horn-shaped fruit and similar to the modern “French Plantain,” and the second to a type similar to the most popular dessert banana of the tropics, the “Silk Fig.” Both of Linnaeus’s designations were soon widely applied, with any plantain being referred to as M. sapientum and all dessert types being referred to as M. paradisiaca. This outdated nomenclature is still used in some modern reference books and papers.

A completely different group evolved from the Australimusa section of the Musa genus, the so-called Fe’i bananas, common in the Pacific and composed of a group of cultivars characterized by the red sap of the plant and, chiefly, the fact that its fruit is produced in erect bunches rather than the hanging bunches typical of all Eumusa types. It is likely that several species, most particularly M. maclayi Muell., are involved in the origin of the Fe’i group.

In purely commercial terms, the most important dessert bananas are those of the Cavendish subgroup—sterile, seedless triploids (AAA) of M. acuminata, of which the best known cultivars are “Grande Naine” and “Dwarf Cavendish.” Others include AA diploids (such as “Pisang Mas” in Southeast Asia and “Bocadillo” in Latin America, both well known because of their excellent taste, which makes them highly prized by European gourmet fruit retailers), various AB diploids (acuminata balbisiana ), AAA triploids (the best known is “Gros Michel,” at one time the world’s leading commercial cultivar but now virtually absent from cultivation because of its high susceptibility to Panama disease, a fungal wilt of serious economic importance), and AAB triploids such as “Silk Fig” (also known as “Pome” and “Manzano”), and the recently obtained AAAB tetraploid “Goldfinger.”

Cooking bananas are usually hybrids, mainly AAB or ABB triploids, with the exception of the so-called “Highlands bananas,” AAA triploids used in Africa mainly for beer production.

Area of Origin and Main Historical Developmental Facts

Wild bananas were probably used in prehistoric times for, among other non-food purposes, cloth, shelter, and dyes. Interest in them as a food crop appeared early in agricultural history, doubtless linked to the appearance of parthenocarpy (i.e., development of fruit without pollination) and consequent lack of seeds in the primitive types of M. acuminata from which the modern edible triploids evolved. Many wild banana diploids and triploids are still abundant throughout southeastern Asia, with a primary area of origin in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, while most of the plantains originated in India and the Philippines. In any event, both spread quickly to other tropical and subtropical regions of the world. The Fe’i bananas evolved throughout the Pacific islands from Indonesia to the Marquesas and still remain closely confined to the area.

The main recognized milestones of these movements are:

c. 500 c.e. — Introduction to Africa from Indonesia (via Madagascar) c. 1000 c.e. — Distribution throughout Polynesia and introduction to Mediterranean areas during Muslim expansion 1300s–1400s — Introduction to the Canary Islands from West Africa 1516 — First recorded introduction to the New World (Santo Domingo) from the Canary Islands 1500s–1800s — Distribution of bananas and plantains throughout tropical America Early 1800s — Introduction to the New World from Southeast Asia of the cultivars Dwarf Cavendish and Gros Michel Late 1800s — Beginning of the international trade 1900s — Banana becomes a major food item in the temperate-zone markets of the Western world as well as in Asia

Many authors question some of these dates: particularly at issue is the well-documented distribution of the banana in South and Central America shortly after Columbus’s first trip, leading some historians to speculate on its presence in the New World prior to 1492. But until proof becomes available, the accepted explanation is that its rapid foothold and spread ran parallel to the slave trade, for which the banana was considered a staple food. The relative durability of banana propagation material and the rapidity with which the plant produces fruit favor this hypothesis, although the archaic uses of the plant’s materials still practiced today by some native communities of the Amazon basin, as well as the increasing body of knowledge pointing to the Asiatic ancestry of Native Americans—whose forebears could conceivably have brought banana seeds with them—also support the idea of an early introduction to Latin America (Moreira).

Legends and Myths

The banana plant has been associated with the religions, folklore, traditions, and social customs of many cultures. In most cases these refer to the special botanical characteristics of the plant. A good example is the Indonesian myth “The banana and the rock,” which in short recounts how in the beginning, God gave humans a rock as a gift. Not at all pleased, the humans clamored for a different gift, whereupon God gave them a banana plant but with the caveat “You choose the banana and not the rock. Your life will be like this plant, in that soon after it has borne descendants the mother plant will die and the young shoots at its base will come into their own. If you had chosen the rock, your life would be eternal.” (Frazer, as cited in Infomusa, 1999). The banana is regarded in many cultures as a symbol of fertility and prosperity; thus, it is frequently planted in the corner of subsistence fields of rice, yam, and other basic crops to “protect” them. Throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific the plant is an important part of the dowry, ensuring food for the newlyweds’ future family.

In New Caledonia the Fe’i banana, given its typical blood-red sap, is considered to be the reincarnation of ancestors, with different clones identified with the diverse clans and others considered privileges of the chiefs. The Yanomami tribe of the Brazilian Amazon use the fruit in their funeral rituals, eating a paste of ripe bananas to which the ashes of the deceased are added (http://www.kah-bonn.de/ausstellungen/orinoko/texte.htm).

In the East African highlands, the care and cooking of bananas are tasks reserved for women, with each elderly woman undertaking the responsibility to provide for ten men; beer bananas, on the other hand, are part of the male domain. In Tanzania, however, women prepare the beer and proceeds from sale are their only socially acceptable form of revenue. Hawaiian women, by contrast, were forbidden, under pain of death, from eating most kinds of bananas until the early 1800s (http://hawaii-nation.org/canoe/maia.html).

The Qur’an holds that the banana is the Tree of Paradise, and the notorious forbidden fruit that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden could conceivably have been a banana rather than an apple, to say nothing of the leaf—certainly larger than that of the fig tree—with which she later covers her modesty. Simmonds provides some support for this, reminding us that Linnaeus did give the banana its scientific species name of paradisiaca (paradise), as well as that the frequent inclusion of “fig” in the common and cultivar names given to certain banana varieties cannot be purely coincidental.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the strong relationship between the banana and humans is the fact that in many languages the banana plant is referred to using terms that indicate people consider it as a family unit: “mother plant” referring to the plant while it is producing a bunch and that will become the “grandmother” once that bunch has been cut; “son” or “daughter” plant referring to the sucker growing at the mother’s base, which will produce the next crop; the “parent crop,” referring to the plants that will provide the first harvest. In the same anthropomorphic line, the terms “hands” and “fingers” are assigned to the fruit (see Botanical Description).

Botanical Description

Bananas and plantains are evergreen herbaceous tropical plants that can be considered giant herbs, as some varieties reach up to ten meters in height, although most commercial types grow to between two and five meters (see Fig. 1). The external “trunk” is in fact a pseudostem formed by the concentric assemblement of the leaf sheaths crowned by a rosette of large, oblong-to-elliptic–shaped leaves (ten to twenty under healthy conditions), conferring on the plant the aspect of a herbaceous tree. The true stem is a subterranean organ that extends upward at the core of the pseudostem until culminating in the inflorescence (the fruiting organ of the plant), which emerges from the top of the plant, and it is responsible for producing all the other parts of the plant: roots, leaves, and shoots or suckers. Leaves are produced successively until the inflorescence is cast, and in variable quantity depending on the specific variety of banana or plantain, climate, and cultural practices.

Although the plant dies after producing fruit, it can be considered perennial in as much as suckers successively replace the senescent aerial parts without need for replanting. Several suckers emerge consecutively from buds located at the axil of leaves; under commercial cultivation, they are regularly eliminated, leaving either the most vigorous sucker, or the one capable of producing a bunch when better prices can be obtained, to replace the mother plant.

The large and complex inflorescence is composed of double rows of flowers, called hands, and covered by bracts, usually red or reddish in color, grouped helixoidally along the inflorescence axis, reproducing the pattern of the leaf system. All flowers are hermaphroditic, but only the female or so-called “first” hands (in most cases between four and nine, but sometimes up to fifteen) will give rise to the edible fruit—technically known as fingers; the other hands are of an intermediate or even male character and do not produce edible fruit (these rudimentary fruitlets usually fall before the edible fingers mature). Commercial fruit develops parthenocarpically, although some varieties produce seed in the wild or can be forced to do so in specialized breeding work.

Depending mainly on climate, cultivation conditions, and varieties, the time lapse between emission of the inflorescence and harvesting of the bunch can be anywhere from three to ten months. Bananas are harvested year-round, with normal commercial bunch weights of 15–30 kg, although bunches of more than 45 kg are not unusual when properly cultivated (exceptional cases of bunches of more than 125 kg have been recorded). A medium-sized dessert banana finger weighs around 160 g.

Nutritional Value and Uses

Banana fruit is composed mainly of water (around 65 percent for banana and 75 percent for plantain) and carbohydrates (from 22 percent for banana and 32 percent for plantain). It contains several vitamins, including A, B, and C, and is very low in protein and fat but rich in minerals, particularly potassium (around 400 mg/100 g). It is cholesterol free, high in fiber, and low in sodium. Chemical composition varies not only among cultivars but also according to climatic and other conditions (values are widely available in most of the texts cited in the Bibliography).

Ripe fruit is usually consumed fresh—simply peeled and eaten as a snack or dessert, in salads mixed with other fruit, and with breakfast cereals, but it also lends itself to more elaborate dishes ranging from ice cream to pie fillings.

Plantains, being starchier than bananas, can be eaten ripe or unripe, but many countries have developed commercial processes to provide a wide variety of products from both fruits (in several cases, green bananas can also be used): puree, flour, jam, jelly, chips, crisps, flakes, dried, catsup, relishes or spreads, preserves, vinegar, and even wine. Banana flour, both from green and ripe fruit, has a great industrial potential and, enriched with sugar, powdered milk, minerals and vitamins, and artificial flavoring, is much used in baby foods. In several areas of Southeast Asia, young fruits are pickled. Puree is used in the manufacture of dairy products, such as yogurt and ice cream, in breads and cakes, banana-flavored drinks, baby food, and diverse sauces.

In Uganda—the country with the highest per-capita consumption of bananas and plantains in the world in 1996: 243 kg while people in most European countries only averaged between 7 and 15 kg—an important part of the diet comes from unripe plantains that are first peeled, then steamed wrapped in their own leaves, and finally pounded to a starchy paste called matoke that constitutes the main dish. Both Uganda and Tanzania produce and consume large quantities of beer brewed from local Highlands bananas. A plantain and soybean mixture, SOYAMUSA, combining carbohydrates and proteins, has been recently developed in Nigeria to be used as a weaning food for toddlers. All told, bananas and plantains represent more than 25 percent of the food energy requirements of Africa (Frison and Sharrock, p. 30).

Tostones is a very popular dish in the Caribbean: slices of green plantain are double-fried (flattening slices with a wooden press between fryings), producing a tasty side dish used in lieu of the ubiquitous french-fried potato. Mofongo is a typical Puerto Rican dish made from fried green plantain, pork, and garlic. Finely ground and roasted dried green plantain has been utilized as a coffee substitute in some countries (Morton, 1987, p 43).

Although the fruit is the main economic product, many parts of the banana plant can be used as food, fodder, or for industrial purposes. Throughout the tropics, male buds, young flowers, and even the pseudostem of some cultivars are eaten cooked as vegetables. Flowers and ashes from burned green leaves and pseudostems are used in curries in Southeast Asia. The possibility of using the raquis to prepare a flour for human consumption and of making a marmalade from plantain peel is being studied in Colombia. Leaves are used for wrapping other food during steaming or other cooking, such as in preparing the Venezuelan hallaca and many pit-steamed or pitroasted meats and vegetables typical among the Pacific Islanders. Banana leaves are also used as environmentally friendly “disposable plates” in southern India, where in fact several cultivars (mainly AAB or ABB plantain types) are grown exclusively for leaf production (Singh, p. 27).

Green and commercially rejected ripe bananas are currently used as animal feed. Leaves, pseudostems, bunch raquis, and peels are also commonly used in fodder. In the Canary Islands (Spain), fresh, chopped banana leaves make up about 80 percent of the diet of Pelibüey sheep.

Medicinal and Therapeutical Value

The easy digestibility and nutritional content make ripe banana an excellent food, particularly suitable for young children and elderly people. In the green stage (and after liquefying) it is used in Brazil to treat dehydration in infants, as the tannins in the fruit tend to protect the lining of the intestinal tract against further loss of liquids. In general, the banana is appropriate for consumption when a low-fat, low-sodium, and/or cholesterol-free diet is required, making it particularly recommendable for people with cardiovascular and kidney problems, arthritis, gout, or gastrointestinal ulcers (Robinson, p. 216).

As the fruit is easy to carry and peel, it is of great value to athletes as a quick and healthy method of replenishing energy because of its high energy value: 75–115 kCal/100 mg of pulp (the lower range for banana and the higher for plantain). Both bananas and plantains contain complex carbohydrates capable of replacing glycogen and important vitamins, particularly B6 and C, and minerals (potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron). Ripe fruit has been used to treat asthma and bronchitis, and, as mentioned, in the control of diarrhea. Boiled and mashed ripe fruit, especially when mixed with other appropriate plants, is also cited as a good remedy against constipation.

The juice extracted from the male bud is thought to be good for stomach problems. The peel of ripe bananas has antiseptic properties and can be used to prepare a poultice for wounds or even applied directly to a wound in an emergency. The banana pseudostem is also cooked in India as a dish called “Khich Khach,” to be taken monthly to prevent constipation. Fresh leaves have reportedly been used medicinally for a whole range of disorders from headaches to urinary tract infections—at one time, stem juice was considered a remedy for gonorrhea. Many of these purported remedies are not well documented and require further investigation.

Modern History, Commercialization, and Trade

The greatest development of the international banana trade occurred in Latin America during the second half of the nineteenth century, with exports from the West Indies and Central America to markets in North America. It was linked inexorably to railway and port expansion and to land concession policies. The founding in 1899 of the United Fruit Company—of Chiquita brand renown—is generally considered to be the fundamental milestone in this process. According to several sources, over the course of many decades this company wielded considerable power over the governments of several Central American countries, to which it allegedly “contributed” around 30 percent of its net operating profit. Thus the term “banana republic” came into use to define a country whose government was manipulated, and presumably corrupted, by the economic clout of a private enterprise.

From harvesting to consumption, bananas require careful handling as the fruit is very susceptible to physical damage and needs proper (cool) storage to avoid quick ripening and decay. After the bunch arrives at the packing house, it is dehanded and broken into clusters of 4–6 fingers each. Both hands and clusters are washed, usually by passing through tanks containing disinfectant solutions, and packed in cardboard boxes holding 12–18 kg on average. Modern refrigerated ships, equipped with holds that feature controlled temperature and humidity, transport the boxed fruit from the producing countries to distant markets. Temperature during transport is extremely critical: between 13 and 14°C guarantees that fruit will reach its destination in optimum conditions, whereas a short exposure to 12°C or colder temperatures will damage the fruit beyond repair by deteriorating its taste.

According to export trade figures, the major supplying countries can be divided into three groups: 1) the Dollar area, including most Latin American countries (where the trade is largely in the hands of multinationals like Chiquita, Dole, or Del Monte); 2) the ACP area, named for the African-Caribbean-Pacific countries that were signatories of the 1975 Lomé Convention and later treaties with the European Union (EU) designed to protect their economy, largely based on agricultural products; and 3) European producers, particularly the Canary Islands (Spain), the French West Indies, and the Portuguese islands of Madeira.

The main importers are Japan (mostly served by the Philippines), the United States, and Canada (supplied almost exclusively by the Dollar area countries), and the European Union (shared among all the major supplying groups by virtue of the Common Market Organization’s banana regulations, which broadly follow the World Trade Organization precepts regarding free trade while safeguarding the traditional economies of ACP countries and EU ultraperipheral regions). Organic production is of increasing importance to import markets and, as is happening with other products, its impact on world trade should be felt in the near future.

About 95 percent of the world export trade is based on Cavendish bananas, but plantains are also the subject of recent interest, especially in Europe because of the burgeoning immigrant population of chiefly African and Latin American origin. Other specialty or exotic bananas, particularly those with red peels and/or flesh, but also apple (“Manzano”), baby banana (“Bocadillo” or “Pisang Mas”), and ice cream (“Lady Finger”) types are commercialized on a small scale to satisfy niche markets.

See also Africa ; Caribbean ; Fruit .


Frazer, J. G. citant A. C. Kruijt. The Belief in Immortality, 1. , excerpted in Infomusa 8 (1) (1999): 30.

Galán Saúco, V. Los Frutales Tropicales y Subtropicales en los Subtrópicos. II. Plátano (Banano). Madrid: Mundi-Prensa, 1992.

Gopinath, C. Y. “How to Cook a Musa Pseudostem.” Infomusa 4 (2) (1995): 31.

Moreira, R. S. Banana, Teoria e Prática de Cultivo. Fundação Cargill. Sao Paulo, Brazil. CD-ROM, 1999.

Morton, J. F. Fruits of Warm Climates. Winterville, N.C.: Creative Resources Systems (distributors); Miami, Fla.: J. F. Morton, 1987.

Robinson, J. C. Bananas and Plantains. Wallingford, U.K.: CAB International, 1996.

Simmonds, N. W. Bananas. 2d ed. London: Longmans, 1966.

Singh, H. P. “Growing Banana for Leaf.” Infomusa 5 (1) (1996): 27–28.

Soto Ballestero, M. S. Bananos: Cultivo y Comercialización. San José: Litografíc e Imprenta, 1992.

White, Lynton Dove. Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii: Mai’A. (1994). Available at http://www.hawaii-nation.org/.

Víctor Galán Saúco

In nature all species, plants and animals, are diploids; that is, they have a chromosome number of 2n, formed by the contribution of n chromosomes (genome) from each progenitor. For diverse reasons and by various natural genetic paths, plants with different levels of ploidy do appear sporadically (e.g., n haploids; 3n triploids; 4n tetraploids, etc.), and a side effect of this natural process is the loss of fertility. In the case of the banana, the appearance of triploids has proven beneficial to the consumer, as seedless fruits are produced.

If you’re dreaming of Caribbean breezes, white sand and azure waters, but stuck at home with little chance of experiencing them, you can relieve the pain of the late-winter blues. Take a culinary cue from the islands and cook your way to contentment.

Caribbean cuisine is as varied, vibrant and enchanting as its landscape. The dishes reflect a fusion of French, African, Chinese, Indian, English, Portuguese and Spanish influences. Synonymous with Caribbean cuisine, coconuts, mangos and seafood seem to dominate.

Maybe you’ve overlooked the less flamboyant, but no less delicious plantains. They are an essential gastronomic underpinning — the 10th most important staple food in the world, and are especially important in the tropics.

Plantains are native to India and the Caribbean where they are treated as more vegetable than fruit. Although there is no formal botanical distinction between bananas and plantains, “dessert” bananas are generally eaten raw, while plantains are cooked because of their high starch/low sugar. Unripe green and ripe yellow bananas are treated in much the same way as plantains and often serve as stand-ins when plantains are unavailable.

Green plantain (platano verde) has a tough skin and is starchy and bland, similar to a potato. When the skin is bright green and firm, use plantains for tostones, plantain chips, mashed plantains and soup. To peel green plantains, remove the ends and make a lengthwise slit through the peel with a knife before you strip off the peel with your hands and slice the fruit.

Semi-ripe plantain (platano pinton) is yellow with brown spots and firm but will yield to a squeeze. Platano pinton is good for fufu, a mashed plantain dish.

Fully ripe plantain (platano maduro), has a banana aroma and is almost banana sweet with dark yellow to brown skin. The tips turn black and the fruit feels tender. Use platanos maduros to prepare fried sweet plantains, a fried plantain omelet or or boil, mash and form deep-fried plantain balls.

Very ripe plantain (platano negra) has very dark, sticky skin and will feel very soft. Despite its appearance it’s still delicious for desserts like bread pudding.

To ripen plantains store them in a loosely closed paper bag. It will take a plantain one to two weeks to fully ripen, depending on the ambient temperature. Don’t refrigerate plantains until they are at the ripeness you desire. Cold halts ripening.

Look for plantains at your favorite Latin, African, or Caribbean market. You may bake, microwave, grill, broil, boil, roast or fry them into delicious savory side dishes or dream on a few of the many delicious creations Caribbean cooks have devised to show off plantains.

• Tostones: Sliced green plantains, fried, smashed, and fried again

• Banana or plantain chips: Thinly sliced green or ripe fruit deep-fried into chips

• Arañitas: Shredded green plantain fritters

• Piononos: Dough made with boiled ripe plantains mashed with egg and flour, rolled into balls, stuffed with meat picadillo (spiced meat), and fried. Or fried ripe plantain strips wrapped around picadillo and pan-fried.

• Jibarito: Long slices of fried plantain used as the “bread” for roast pork sandwiches.

• Piñon or pastelon de amarillos: A baked “lasagna” of layered meat and fried ripe plantain strips or mashed cooked plantains.

• Pasteles: Plantain and/or taro paste “tamales” stuffed with meat and annatto-spiced filling steamed in banana or plantain leaves.

• Fu-Fu: Boiled and mashed ripe or green plantains poular in Cuba.

• Mofongo: Puerto Rican boiled and mashed plantains seasoned with fried pork cracklings; sometimes mofongo is “stuffed” by pressing it into the bottom and sides of a bowl and pouring in stews or sautés.

• Mangú: Dominican boiled and mashed green plantains served for breakfast.

• Conquintay: Dried and ground green plantain flour; used for dumplings or to thicken.

Vinegar-Marinated Green Bananas (Banana Escabeche)

Escabeche or escovitch is a traditional method of preparing fish that came directly from Spain and North Africa. Though Cubans and Jamaicans prepare escovitch with fish, this dish substitutes boiled green bananas.

Yields 5 cups, 4 to 6 servings

2 lbs. 10 ounces green unripe bananas, about 6 medium (8-inch long), washed

1/4 C. plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 C. seeded and finely slivered red bell pepper

1 C. seeded and finely slivered green bell pepper

1 C. peeled and finely slivered onion

4 T. white wine vinegar

3 T. drained capers

1-1/2 t. fresh thyme leaves

Slit green bananas (shallowly) lengthwise and slice off both ends. place in 4-quart saucepan, cover with cold water, and stir in 1-1/2 tablespoons kosher salt. Bring bananas to a boil and lower heat to a high simmer. Weight bananas with small lid to keep them immersed. Cook until tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Don’t be alarmed if a purple scum appears: it may come off the ends of the green banana if they are not trimmed completely away. Rinse bananas under cold water, drain, and set aside to cool.

In the meantime, heat oil in 10-inch skillet over medium heat and add peppers and onion. Cook until soft, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Stir in vinegar, capers, and thyme, and season with salt to taste. Remove pan from heat.

Peel bananas, discard peels, and slice bananas into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Place bananas into pan with the warm onions and peppers. Toss well. Taste and adjust seasonings. Marinate 1 hour or longer at room temperature.

To serve: Mound banana escabeche into serving bowl or onto serving platter; spoon some of the vegetables and marinade over top. serve at room temperature or chilled.

Adapted from: “Beyond Gumbo” by Jessica B. Harris

Twice-Fried Plantains (Tostones)

Popular in Puerto Rico, tostones have become a Caribbean-Latin American favorite. Some varieties of plantains work better than others: look for short, fat ones with distinct edges. The second dip into saltwater steams and crisps the tostones.

Yields about 16 tostones, 4 to 8 servings

2 lbs. large unripe, green plantains

Oil for frying


1/2 C. mayonnaise

1/2 C. ketchup


1/4 C. oil, preferably olive

1-1/2 t. peeled and minced garlic

Cut the ends off plantains and slice shallowly through the skin lengthwise in two places to loosen peel. (If peels won’t budge, immerse plantains in hot tap water 5 to 10 minutes and drain.)

Mix 1 quart cool water with 3 tablespoons kosher salt and stir until salt dissolves. Slice peeled plantains into 1-inch-thick rounds. Immerse plantain slices in salt water and rest 10 minutes. remove plantains and blot dry. Reserve salt water.

Heat 1/2 inch oil in 10- to 12-inch skillet over medium heat until oil sizzles when a plantain hits it. Fry plantain slices in batches until tender and a golden crust forms, but not until overly brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. If oil gets too hot, turn down the heat or remove pan briefly from burner. Transfer once-fried plantains to paper towel-covered sheet pan to drain. Set skillet with oil aside and reserve.

Place a still-warm plantain on a clean cutting board and put a glass or pie plate on top. Squash plantain an even 1/4-inch thick. (With a glass it’s possible to see the plantain as it flattens.) Transfer squashed plantain to sheet pan, and cover with damp towel or plastic wrap. Smashed plantains will keep up to 2 hours tightly wrapped.

Reheat oil over medium heat until hot, but not smoking. Dip each plantain into reserved salt water, drain lightly, and place immediately into the hot oil. Fry plantains in batches until golden and crunchy, about 2 minutes per side.

Prepare Mayo-Ketchup and/or Garlic-Oil: Mix mayonnaise with ketchup and place into a serving bowl. Mix oil with garlic, season with salt and place in another bowl.

To serve: Transfer hot tostones to paper towel-lined serving dish, season with a little salt, and serve immediately with mayo-ketchup and garlic-oil.


Plantain Chips: Peel plantains as for tostones. Thinly slice plantains lengthwise or crosswise on mandoline. Deep-fry until golden and crisp in oil heated to 355 to 360 degrees F. Drain on paper towel and season with salt while still warm.

Platanos Maduros (Sweet Fried Plantains)

The plantain slices should be tender and blurred around the edges. If they hold their shape easily and retain sharp edges, they’re too firm. Firm plantains end up chewy, starchy nuggets cooked this way.

Yields 3 to 4 servings

3 medium overripe plantains (about 1½ pounds), cut into 3/4-inch slices

Optional: 2 T. brown sugar

3/4 C. coconut oil

Toss plantains and optional brown sugar in a medium bowl. Season with salt and toss again.

Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the plantains in one layer and adjust heat so the oil bubbles gently. Fry, turning once, until the plantains are fully tender and deeply browned on both sides, 12 to 15 minutes.

Drain fried plantains on a plate (not paper towel), and serve hot or warm.

Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines.”

Plantains, the Almost Perfect Fruit

They are not an over-grown, monster banana. Plantains come from the Musa genus of the plant family, same as bananas do. However after that they are different species. They have a higher starch content than bananas, are rarely eaten raw, are firmer and have a much lower sugar content.

Plantain History

Plantains originated in Asia, and were brought to Africa by Arab and Asian traders sometime way back when. The Portuguese brought them to the Caribbean Islands in the early 1500’s. Today they are a staple food throughout the tropics, and are shipped pretty much worldwide. I can find this fruit in most of my New York State supermarkets. They are green and sometimes take up to three weeks to ripen. I will eat them when they are yellow with black spots, as in the picture, but when they are fully ripened the skins will be black.

Nutrition and Other Tidbits

Plantains are a great source of potassium and Vitamin A. One of these fruits also has about half your Vitamin C requirement for the day, and fair amounts of magnesium, phosphorous, selenium, other B Vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc and copper. Since plantains have a low sugar content they are a good complex carbohydrate choice, and they also contribute a small amount of protein to the diet.

Plantains are grown as a staple food in 52 countries, and in 2004 the world produced about 72 billion pounds, give or take a ton.

Plantain leaves can grow up to 9 feet long and 2 feet wide. They can be used as wrappers for steaming foods, or just as a serving plate.

Cooking with Plantains

You may know them as dodo, fufu, kelewele, makemba, tostones or chifles, ipekere or aloko. Every country in the tropics seems to have its own name and favorite method of preparation for this versatile fruit. Although they are technically a fruit, they are usually eaten as a vegetable. They can be roasted, on a grill or in the oven, simply by cutting a slit in the skin and roasting about half an hour, until the skin turns black. They can be boiled in the skin as well, and then sliced or mashed. Mashed plantain is used as a type of fufu and served with a sauce, or formed into cakes and fried until golden. Raw slices can be fried, either plain or mixed with spices and lemon juice. Very thin slices are deep fried into chips as a popular snack. Plantain mashed, wrapped and steamed in the large leaves are called matoke in East Africa. You can make a sweet pudding or fritters from plantains. They are even fermented and made into a wine.

Plantains are widely available now in the produce section of many grocery stores. Pick up a few today and try something new. See my recipes for plantain small chop, and learn how to peel a plantain.

The Plantain: Fruit or Vegetable?

17 Oct The Plantain: Fruit or Vegetable?

Posted at 20:26h in All Posts by admin

Is the plantain a fruit or vegetable? For many, the first exposure to a plantain is in the produce section of their local grocery store when they see a funny-looking banana. Upon further examination, it becomes clear that this “banana” seems larger, has a thicker skin, and unlike the smooth, yellow bananas typically found in grocery stores, these larger plantains are available in a range of colors as they ripen, from green to yellow to mostly black. It is clearly related to the banana, but if it isn’t a banana, then what is it? Is it even a fruit?

According to Fruits and Veggies- More Matters—a health initiative spearheaded by the Produce for Better Health Foundation in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)—the plantain is actually a…fruit!

The plantain is member of the Musa genus, which also includes bananas. These flowering plants grow large stems with overlapping leaf sheathes that give them a woody tree-like appearance, and in reality, they actually grow in a way more akin to herbs.

The confusion over the plantain’s food-type status likely comes from the fact that it is traditionally used more like a vegetable, as a side dish or accompaniment, and it needs to be cooked before consumption. Plantains can be boiled, baked, or fried, both when ripe and in their green state.

Each cooking method offers a unique experience. Green boiled plantains can be mashed and served in dishes like Mofongo, a traditional dish from Puerto Rico or flattened and fried to make a toston—delicious with a dash of salt and often served with cheese, pico de gallo, guacamole or a protein as an appetizer.

However, when ripe, plantains offer a whole other experience. Ripe plantains naturally caramelize when fried or baked. They taste naturally sweet and are traditionally served whole or in slices. Ripe plantains are becoming immensely popular in mainstream menus across the United States and, more recently, in Canada and Europe, in part thanks to Celebrity Chefs like Rachel Ray, Bobbie Flay, and Martha Stewart, all of whom have offered recipes with this versatile fruit. One of our favorites is the Plantain-Stuffed Pork Loin as featured by Martha Stewart.

The plantain is consumed world-wide and is a major food staple in Southeast Asia, West and Central Africa, Central America, the Caribbean Islands, and regions of South America. Its appeal comes in part from the fact that this tropical fruit grows year-round.

The plantain has many of the same nutritional benefits of the banana, and in its raw state is fat-free, cholesterol-free, and high in potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C.

At MIC Food, we love both ripe and green plantains for their ability to be creatively purposed and prepared. Check out our recipe page for ideas and contact us to send us questions or learn more about plantains and other tropical products.


Plantain is a major food staple in Africa, and West Africa is one of the major plantain-producing regions of the world, accounting for approximately 32% of worldwide production.

Plantains are the fruit of the Musa Paradisiaca, a type of banana plant. Many people confuse plantains with bananas, and although they look a lot like green bananas and are a close relative, plantains are very different.

They are starchy, not sweet. They are used as a vegetable in most recipes in Africa, and not eaten as a fruit, although technically, they are a fruit. They are usually cooked before being eaten. African Plantain trees fruit all year round, however, the major harvest usually runs through November to February.

Plantains start out being green in colour. As they ripen, their colour changes from green to yellow to black. Naturally, green plantains contain the least amount of sugar and are best used for savoury recipes, while black plantains contain the most amount of sugar (for a starchy vegetable!), and are best incorporated in a mash.

Nutritionally, plantains contain more vitamins A and C than banana, and they are rich sources of vitamin B6, potassium and fibre.

How you cook plantain as a component of an African recipe depends on what part of Africa you are from. Plantains can be boiled, roasted, baked or grilled. In Nigeria, plantain is enjoyed mostly sliced diagonally and fried, a dish called Dodo, or roasted on top of hot charcoals. This is a popular street food called Bolé.

Ghana’s most popular street food Kelewele is made from plantains, diced, spiced and fried. In the Congo region, plantains are either peeled, sliced, and boiled, or cut into rondelles and fried in oil, a dish called Makemba.

So now that you are ready to start exploring the world of plantain, head out to your local grocery store, where you should find plantain in the fresh produce section, usually next to other tropical fruits like mangos and coconuts. Buy a couple of plantains and enjoy a whole new world of African Plantain recipes.

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