Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Bananas

Let’s get the most important banana-related question out of the way: how do you peel a banana, from the stem end, or the bottom? Maybe I’m just a ham-handed banana opener, but I find that trying to peel a banana from the stem end often results in a bit of squished banana at the top. So I open them from the bottom end, like monkeys do. I conducted a highly scientific Facebook poll, which demonstrated that most of my banana-eating friends are split right down the middle in their banana-peeling methods. Some were incredulous that there is more than one way to open a banana. Others indicated that they avoid opening bananas from the bottom to steer clear of the repulsive, slimy little nubbin at the very tip, even though they agree that opening from the top could cause squishage. A few were opportunists, opening from the top unless the banana started to squish, and then switching to the bottom opening method. One thing I know: like the Great Toilet Paper Debate, the How to Peel a Banana Debate rages on. 

A Brief History

Scientists are now pretty sure that bananas originated in the forests of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific. As Dan Koeppel explains in his fascinating book, Bananas: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, bananas were probably first domesticated in Papua New Guinea as early as 5,000 BCE. The fruit spread across the Pacific via the Polynesians, and later across the world (eventually making their way to Latin America) through the colonization activities of the Spanish and Portuguese.   

Bananas didn’t appear in North America until the 1880s, when modernized transport made shipping bananas north from Latin America possible. At that time, the fruit was still an expensive luxury. In the early part of the last century, American businesses, the most prominent of which were the United Fruit Company and the Standard Fruit Company (which eventually became Chiquita and Dole, respectively), bought a lot of land in Central America and began banana plantations. These companies exerted tremendous amounts of political control over the countries in which they operated (not to mention control over their laborers and the environment); the term “banana republic” comes from this era. For an in-depth description of the history of banana growing, and the economic, political and social implications of the industry, check out Koeppel’s book. Here is a slightly more succinct primer on the political and social history of the fruit. 

Factual Nibbles

Cultivation

All bananas are in the genus Musa, which includes both sweet bananas (what we call simply “bananas”) and starchy bananas (“plantains”). But here’s the really cool thing – bananas are actually botanically classified as an herb. (Did I just blow your mind?) Although a banana plant looks a lot like a tree, the “trunk” is actually referred to as a “psedostem” – it’s really just the ends of all of the leaves of the plant, smooshed together into something trunk-like. When the plant matures, a really weird and wonderful flowering structure at the end of a stalk, called the “inflorescence,” emerges. Banana fruits, technically berries, grow on this stalk in bunches, called “hands.” (The bananas themselves are called “fingers.”)

Bananas are perennials, and in most growing areas one plant can produce fruit for up to ten years. All cultivated bananas are seedless and thus reproduce only through human-induced vegetative propagation. Because of this, the type of banana we most frequently see at the market – the Cavendish variety – are essentially all clones of one another. As Dan Koeppel points out in his book, this makes them extremely vulnerable to disease. Indeed, Koeppel’s book is focused on the history and spread of one particularly devastating fungus, called Panama disease, that has been raging on banana plantations for decades. The type of banana that our grandparents ate, the Gros Michel, has effectively gone extinct, wiped out by the disease. The Cavindish was bred as a “resistant” variety, but the fungus has already destroyed Cavindish banana plantations in Asia and Australia – and Koeppel notes that it is only a matter of time before Panama disease destroys Central and South American banana plantations as well. Here’s an interview with Koeppel in which he explains the disease and why we only see one type of banana in our markets, even though there are over hundreds of varieties of the fruit in the world.

The banana industry is huge – bananas (including plantains) are one of the most important staple crops in the world, and constitute a multibillion-dollar industry with major multinational corporations in on the banana-growing game. India, China, the Philippines and Ecuador lead world production. The US is the world’s largest importer of the fruit, but plays a minimal role in commercial cultivation – of those that are grown stateside, they’re grown in Hawaii and Florida.  

Seasonality

Bananas are grown in tropical areas and can produce nearly year-round, so seasonality is not particularly relevant to the fruit. 

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of conventionally grown bananas is pretty huge. First, the majority of banana plantations are monocultures (meaning that they grow only one type of crop – and in the case of bananas, only one variety), which make them more susceptible to disease (and thus more reliant on pesticides) and drastically reduce natural biodiversity, not to mention rainforest destruction. Secondly, there is a huge amount of synthetic fertilizers and pesticide use (including insecticides, fungicides and herbicides) used on banana plantations, which has a negative impact on local wildlife and waterways. Bananas show up at number 35 on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce (*and check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below). 

In addition, there have been historically, and continue to be, workers’ rights violations in the banana industry across the world. Human Rights Watch documented child labor (which included children being exposed to pesticides) and extreme deterrents (including retaliation) to organized labor activities in one of the largest banana growing areas in the world, Ecuador. (This older New York Times article describes child labor in Ecuador in detail.) Pesticide exposure is also a major concern amongst banana plantation workers. 

The good news: things seem to be getting better, with the introduction of Fair Trade certified bananas, organic plantations and the work of groups like Rainforest Alliance, which offers a banana certification program using certification standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network. Seek out organic and/or fairly traded bananas when you can (although note that they are generally quite a bit more expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts). 

Characteristics

We’re pretty banana-deprived in North America, at least in terms of variety. The vast majority of bananas we get in the market are the large, bright yellow Cavendish cultivar. But across the globe, bananas vary widely in color, size and shape. There are tiny, fat yellow bananas, big red bananas and pink bananas, each with their own unique flavor. If you’re lucky and live in a tropical climate, you may come across some of these different varieties of bananas in your local farmers’ market. 

What to look for

Unless you intend to eat your bananas right away, look for a bunch that is still slightly green and allow them to ripen on your counter (see the Storage section, below). The bananas should be firm, without bruised or black spots. (As they ripen, of course, their skin becomes golden yellow flecked with brown spots.) 

Nutrition

Bananas are really, really good for you! One medium-sized banana will give you about 12 percent of your daily fiber needs, plus lots of Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, potassium and manganese. Bananas even have a bit of protein, iron and calcium. Plantains have all that and more – add Vitamin A and folate to the list of their nutritional goodies. 

What to Do with It

Bananas are, of course, eaten out of hand and also used in many sweets, from quick breads to puddings. They can be baked, caramelized, broiled and even grilled. Bananas are frequently paired with their tropical brethren: think coconut, rum, chocolate and citrus. They are also commonly paired with warming spices (like cinnamon and nutmeg) and dairy products (like ice cream). Bananas’ more savory cousins, plantains, must be cooked before being eaten – they’re delicious fried (as in tostones), roasted, sautéed and stewed and can be used like potatoes in many dishes. 

Cooking

Because bananas tend to get soft (and much sweeter) the riper they get, the ripeness of your banana should dictate what you do with it. Most banana bread recipes call for super soft bananas; on the other hand, if you’re planning on caramelizing them or slicing for garnish (like in this banana pudding recipe), firmer bananas are the way to go. (And mark your calendar: February 23rd is National Banana Bread Day!) There are a couple of famous banana-based desserts, each with their own interesting history. Bananas Foster, a dish of caramelized bananas with banana liquor and rum, was invented in New Orleans in 1951. The banana split was invented in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1904. Banana cream pie first began to appear in print in the early 1900s. (National Banana Cream Pie Day is March 2nd!) You can also find (or make) banana vinegar and banana wine (popular in parts of Africa).   

Storage

Ripen green bananas on the counter. You can also store them on the counter – but note that they will continue to ripen, and sometimes pretty quickly, depending on how warm it is. (Ripening in the case of bananas means that the starch in the fruit is converted to sugar; so the longer they are allowed to ripen, the sweeter they become.) 

Contrary to popular belief, you canstore bananas in the refrigerator, but only after they have become the exact level of ripeness you want. Sticking them in the fridge will turn their skins black, but the fruit inside will pretty much stay the same ripeness (the cold retards ripening – which is why you don’t want to put a green banana in the fridge). Keep bananas away from highly perishable fruits and vegetables; bananas give off high levels of ethylene gas that promotes ripening and eventual decay in many fruits and veggies. You can also use bananas’ ethylene gas to your advantage: to ripen a hard avocado overnight, stick it in a paper bag with a ripe banana. The banana’s ethylene gas will work its magic on the avocado, making it perfectly ripe and ready for your next batch of guacamole.   

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Bananas freeze beautifully – just peel them and stick them in a zip-top bag for use in smoothies (my favorite is number 4 on this list) and other yummy recipes, like this amazing banana ice cream – no ice cream maker necessary. One of the very first recipes I ever made, as a seven year old in a cooking class in Savannah, Georgia, was chocolate-covered frozen bananas. You can also make your own banana chips in the oven. Banana jam is also a fun way to preserve a bunch of bananas – here’s a great banana jam recipe roundup from Punk Domestics. Or make this banana ketchup, a popular condiment in the Philippines, which will keep for several weeks in the fridge.

Recipe

Caramelized Bananas with Coconut, Walnuts and Cardamom

Serve this easy recipe over vanilla or chocolate ice cream, or as a topping for thick Greek yogurt. A splash of rum or other liquor would not be out of place here. 

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons coconut oil or butter

12 cup organic brown sugar 

2 firm-ripe organic bananas, peeled and sliced into 12 inch disks

12 teaspoon ground cardamom

Pinch kosher or sea salt

13 cup shredded coconut, lightly toasted

13 cup walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped

Method:

  1. Melt the coconut oil (or butter) a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the sugar all at once and stir until the sugar has melted, 2-3 minutes.
  2. Add the sliced bananas and ground cardamom. Using a heatproof rubber spatula, very gently stir the bananas to coat. They should start to caramelize slightly. Turn off the heat to keep the sugar from burning. 
  3. Gently stir in the coconut and walnuts. Eat warm. 


(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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