Mystery Plant! #729
By John Nelson
We have no bananas today, but we have something very, very similar: something that brings us a very decidedly Latin American addition to our menus. But first, a few words about the banana “family”.
The banana family is a group of plant species which are tropical in origin, most of these species native to central Africa, southern Asia, and Indonesia. Bananas that you buy in the market belong to this plant family, of course, and they are grown widely in the New World tropics now, well outside of their native range. Banana plants commonly attain tree size, but they are not at all woody. The plants, rather, are classified as gigantic herbs, and their “trunks” are actually the bases of sheathing leaves. After producing a bunch of bananas, each trunk dies and gets cut back to the ground; the rhizome below will produce another one.
The ripe fruits pictured here are indeed closely related to the banana of commerce (the Cavendish variety, sometimes called the “dessert” banana), but they represent a different variety of the same hybrid plant, from which both come. Our Mystery Plant is now a staple of many diets throughout Latin America, providing an easily marketed and economical carbohydrate source, one loaded with vitamins and minerals. It is widely consumed in Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, and is becoming more and more popular here in the USA, easy to find in supermarkets with well-stocked produce departments.
My brother-in-law, Carlos, who was born and grew up as a kid in Cuba. He tells me that this plant’s Cuban name is platano, which is similar to the English name for it. Platano was enormously versatile as a menu item in Carlos’s household, somewhat rivaling shrimp as a menu item (remember Bubba’s discourse in Forrest Gump?). Platanos could appear as an appetizer, in a main course, and in desserts, and is still known as a prominent feature of Cuban cuisine.
These “bananoid” things are larger and heavier than regular dessert bananas, generally with ridges on the tough skin. They may be cooked while unripe and green, or ripe, when yellow. (Some recipes call for the ripest fruits, used after the skins turn black. That’s when the platano is the sweetest.) Carlos recommends them–for a snack–as mariquitas: very thinly sliced into flat sections, then fried and salted: with a dipping sauce of olive oil, garlic, and lime juice, it’s an appetizer that can’t be beat. Or, for a main dish, try them as platanos a puñetazos, in which thickly sliced sections of the green fruits are lightly fried and drained, then mashed or “punched” with the palm of the hand, before being returned to the skillet a second time and fried to crispiness. Lightly salted, they make a terrific side dish with roast pork. A tempting dessert? Bake ripe, firm fruits with brown sugar, cinnamon, and some orange juice for platanos en tentacion. All of these are marvelous textures and flavors that really stick with you. And now I’m hungry.
[Answer: “Plantain,” a hybrid between Musa paradisiaca and Musa balbisiana]
John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or email email@example.com.
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