By Julie Etra
Called the banana in America, this lovely and versatile fruit is just one in a group of fruits more commonly known as plantains or plátanos (in Spanish). They are the most widely distributed and consumed fruit in the world and consist of a large number of species, hybrids and cultivars of the Musa genus. Only the grains wheat, rice and corn surpass the production of plantains (bananas) globally. In many parts of the world, the kind of plantains that are cooked are distinguished from the sweet, raw bananas familiar to us in North America.
The origin of this starchy fruit is most likely Malaysia, New Guinea, Indonesia, or the Philippines. The first references appear as early as 600 BCE, but it was noted by Alexander the Great during his travels to India in the 4th century CE. Through trade, like every other valuable commodity, it was dispersed to China, Africa, and well, the rest is history. This original seed-filled fruit barely resembled those consumed today, which has resulted from centuries of plant breeding. The world’s largest producers of bananas in 2017 were India and China, which together accounted for approximately 38% of total production.
One banana, two bananas, and many more
Are you confused by the variety of bananas and banana-like fruits displayed at the Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco (MOH)? Or in the various fruteriás along Calle Carrizal or elsewhere in La Crucecita? A pity most of us are only familiar with the common and ubiquitous Cavendish (Musa acuminata), named after Englishman William Spencer Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who began its cultivation in British greenhouses around 1834. (More about this common banana later.)
As shown in the graphic, there are eight principal banana crops produced in Mexico, including, of course, the Cavendish. As an alternative to that “standard” banana, try the diminutive Dominico bananas, also known as plátano enano, or dwarf plantain, most of which come to Huatulco from neighboring Veracruz. This is the smallest banana available in Mexico. It is a very sweet variety and is widely used in pastry and other confections, including drinks. It is rich in vitamins B, C, and E and has a high magnesium content. It is our favorite banana, and although we can find them when we are going through withdrawal upon our return to the USA, they are very expensive and it seems they never ripen. It usually takes me three plus tries to give up on these expensive imports. When in Huatulco, this banana is our favorite snack.
Later in the Mexican winter the slightly larger Manzanos are available. They are different, of course, with the Dominicos being slightly sweeter and easier to find, even in the super stores like Chedraui and Soriana. Our previous neighbors have a Manzano tree, but I have not been bold enough to approach the present occupants. Manzanos are a bit nuttier and harder in texture than the fast-ripening Dominico.
Problems with popular bananas
The Gros Michel is an example of monoculture disasters. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was the most popular banana in Europe and North America. In 1940, however, a fungal infection arrived in Panama, more precisely Fusarium oxysporum, which attacked the roots of the Gros Michel. Since it produced no viable seeds, only reproducing asexually, it was particularly vulnerable to disease, and hence its demise 20 years after the fungus arrived.
The Cavendish, resistant to the fungus described above, became more popular, with several available varieties including the big dwarf, the small dwarf (redundant, I know), the Lacatan, Valery, Robusta, and Poyo. Recently, another variety of the fungus that infected the Gros Michel has been discovered, and this banana could go the way of its predecessor as it is also asexually cultivated in monocultures (clonal propagation). This type of monoculture cultivation results in plants very vulnerable to plagues and possible extirpation, exactly what happened to the Gros Michel.
Broaden your banana repertoire!
The plátano macho is the largest and heaviest of the bananas and is not sweet. It is cooked in a variety of ways, and can be yellow-, green-, or dark-skinned when very ripe. Machos are consumed in many tropical countries but are virtually unknown in Europe.
The red bananas you see at the MOH and grocery stores, the thick-skinned plátano rojo, is very popular in Latin America, and its availability and use has recently expanded to Europe. It can be consumed raw or cooked.
And yes, there are even more varieties, typically available on a local level, such as the Tabasco (Mexico) and Roatan (one of the Bay islands in Honduras).
Patacones, as they are known in Costa Rica and elsewhere in Latin America, but usually called tostones in Mexico, are small pancakes or pucks made from green Machos, cut in cross section, fried, then flattened and fried a second time. Another fried plantain, cut lengthwise, is a typical accompaniment to Latin American breakfasts – it is a favorite in istmeño cooking (the cuisine of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca). You can enjoy patacones in Huatulco at the restaurant Bladuyu at the entrance to Bahia Chahue. For dessert they can be fried with a liquor, honey and/or cinnamon additionally dribbled/sprinkled on top and accompanied with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. Yum.
And for a real treat, try molotes de plátano, Macho pulp dough stuffed with quesillo, the lovely Oaxacan cheese (alternatively with black beans), fried, and bathed in condensed milk (or not), frequently offered at Playa San Agustín. The women walk up and down the beach with rectangular plastic containers filled with these tasty, filling units. Don’t pass them up!