How to Make a Malayalee Mad:
1. Call a plantain a banana.
2. Insist ‘It’s the same thing. The difference is just in the size.’ **head meets desk**
A clue-by-four with an unripe specimen of each should sort out the confusion.
Mallus are plantain-proud. Calling a plantain a banana is like pointing to someone’s prize racehorse and saying, “Nice goat”.
(Yeah, we’ve seen Malayalees using the two interchangeably as well. We hope it’s because plantains may not be readily available and may be substituted with bananas in a recipe.)
India accounts for 23% of the world banana and plantain crop, and while Indians use a variety of bananas, both ripe and raw, in a variety of ways, those from Kerala, coastal Karnataka and Goa have a fondness for plantains.
Around 327 B.C., Alexander the Great tasted plantains and bananas in India and took the seeds to Greece, from where they made their way to the east coast of Africa. The Portuguese brought them to Europe in 1516. African slaves popularised these fruits in North America, the Carribean and south America. Now, they are the fourth most important food commodity in the world after rice, wheat and maize.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Technically, all plantains are NOT bananas, but all bananas are plantains.
The plantain is a species of the genus Musa and is generally used for cooking, in contrast to the soft, sweet banana (which is sometimes called the dessert banana). The population of North America was first introduced to the banana plantain, and colloquially in the United States and Europe the term “banana” refers to that variety. The word “banana” is often used incorrectly to describe other plantain varieties as well, when in fact the generic name is “plantain” and the specific varieties are cooking plantain, banana plantain, bocadillo plantain (the little one), etc. All members of the genus Musa are indigenous to the tropical region of Southeast Asia, including the Malay Archipelago and northern Australia.
In fact, the Spanish word for banana is plátano (plantain), and the ones on steroids that we call ‘plantains‘ are called plátano macho (big plantain).
Bananas have more sugar and less starch, plantains have less sugar and more starch, akin to a potato. It’s the starchiness of the plantain that leads many people to confuse it with an unripe banana. For a pictorial comparison, see THIS POST.
Bananas and plantains are so ubiquitous to Kerala and its cuisine, that the word for banana ( ‘pazham‘ ) is the same as the generic word for ‘fruit‘. Unripe, green bananas are called ‘kaaya’, and are cooked up into a variety of dishes, including banana chips.
The green banana is used to make a stir-fry (upperi/mezhukkuparatti), so is its skin. Banana stem and banana flowers are also part of the menu in Kerala households. The banana leaf is the natural plate on which traditional meals are served.
As for the plantain, in Kerala it’s consumed both green and ripe (unlike in Latin America and the Carribean, where they have a pronounced preference for green plantains, as in Tostones and Sopa de Platano).
A plantain is not just a longer banana. It has a richer, more complex flavour.
When green to almost yellow, they are very starchy – perfect for boiling and frying. When yellow to brown, they are fruity and firmer than bananas. When the peel is black, they are at peak ripeness and at their sweetest.
They are increasingly available in regular grocery stores, and always in Caribbean, or Hispanic stores.
The most popular dish in Kerala with green plantains is the fried chips. (Varutthupperi)
There is a protocol of shapes when it comes to serving them.
As Ammini Ramachandran explains in Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts,
Plantains are cut in three different shapes for frying. For serving at feasts, they are generally quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into triangular sizes. To serve as a snack, they are cut either as full rounds or as half rounds.
Both the fruit and skins are used to make a stir-fry.
In Kerala, ripe plantains (nenthra pazham) – uncooked or cooked – find their way to the table quite regularly.
And pazham pori (fritters dipped in a flour batter)
Steamed plantains go to Hima @ SnackORama for What’s your Favorite …Snack.
And the glorious Nenthrapazha (Plantain) Pradhaman.
We also make savoury dishes with Ripe Plantains.
One of them is Kaalan – a coconutty yogurty curry with vegetables. Kaalan is an important part of any Malayalee festive meal. Ripe Mango Kaalan is out of this world, but it was a surprise to find this recipe for Kaalan with ripe plantains in Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts.
The word “curry” often evokes a sense of tropical spiciness. Although in Kerala we prepare a variety of spicy curries, we also have some mildly sweet, tropical fruit curries that are cooked in a mellow coconut and yogurt sauce.
The tartness of the yogurt, the heat of the green chillies, the creaminess of the coconut, and the sweetness of the plantains and the jaggery create a perfect balance of flavours.
In addition to ripe mango and ripe plantain, kaalan is often made with ash gourd (winter melon), spinach and taro root.
Always keep the curry on medium heat. High heat will lead the yogurt to split.
2 firm, ripe plantains, peeled and cut into half-inch chunks
1 tsp crushed black pepper
salt to taste
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
2.5 cups freshly grated, or frozen coconut (we used 1.5 cups)
3 to 4 serrano or Thai green chillies
2 cups thick yogurt (we used 1.25 cups)
For seasoning and garnish:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tsp. dried mustard seeds
1 dried red chilli, halved
12 to 15 fresh curry leaves
1 tsp fenugreek seeds, panfried and crushed
2 tbsps. jaggery (or brown sugar) (we used 1 tbsp)
1. Cover the plantain chunks with water, add black pepper, turmeric and salt and cook over medium heat until fork tender.
2. Meanwhile, grind the coconut, green chillies and half the yogurt into a smooth paste.
3. Add this to the cooked plantain pieces with the remaining yogurt, stir and cook on medium-low until it comes to a boil.
4. Heat the oil. Add the mustard seeds. When they pop, add the red chilli and curry leaves. Remove from the stove. Add the crushed fenugreek and pour the spices over the curry.
5. Stir in the jaggery, cover and let it rest for ten minutes, to allow the flavours to blend.
Serve with plain boiled rice and another side dish, as is traditional.
Nenthrapazha Kaalan is our entry for Jihva for Ingredients, hosted by Mandira @ Ahaar. The current theme is Planta… Bananas.