This morning as I was eating a banana and drinking coffee. I was suddenly struck by the fragrant sweetness of my fruit. It’s a tropical ingredient that we all take for granted because we see them every day. They have become ubiquitous and perhaps we have all forgotten why they became popular in the first place. They transport well and ripen easily off the tree. They also have a wonderful texture. Underneath their smooth thick skins, they are soft and almost fluffy against you tongue. As you sink you teeth into them, they yield gently to the pressure to reveal a smooth, almost creamy interior. Their scent is delicate and tropical. As you chew there is a clean sweet flavor like no other, with a slight hint of muskiness, the riper the banana, the stronger the hint, and that unique banana flavor that is reminiscent of vanilla without containing any actual vanilla flavors at all. It is the perfect foil for all manner of seasonings, pairing beautifully with chocolate or coconut, jalapenos or oranges, manzanilla sherry or rum. It can stand alone or play the wing man with grace and style. It can add richness and texture to many compositions without additional fat. It has a healthy measure of fiber, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin B6. It can be dressed as sweet or savory with equal aplomb. It is often overlooked and almost always available.
Bananas and plantains were one of the earliest fruits to be cultivated by man. They were relatively easy to propagate and could be harvested year-round. There is evidence that they were produced in China as early as 200 AD. Bananas were discovered by Alexander the Great in India in 327 BC and he is credited with introducing the fruit to Western countries. Africa and India were both important producers of bananas and it is believed that several mutations occurred in these countries, which produced many new varieties of the fruit. From Africa, the banana traveled to the Canary Islands, the Caribbean, and finally into Latin America. From China, bananas traveled to England where the variety now known as the Cavendish was developed and became popular. It was modified to increase resistance to insects and disease, and to create a thinner skin, slightly smaller shape, and a creamier texture than it’s predecessors. This variety, along with many of its offspring, accounts for a large percentage of the commercially grown bananas today.
It was not until the mid-1800s that bananas were brought to modern America. It was originally introduced as an exotic dessert. Today bananas are the number one fruit in America. They are not produced in this country, although on average, Americans consume over 28 pounds of bananas each year. Quality is determined by size, both length and thickness, evenness of ripening, lack of blemishes and the shape of the clusters. There are three classes, from the highest to the lowest: Superior, Class One and Class Two. Cosmetic defects in any of the classes may not affect the flesh of the fruit, although they will certainly affect the price of the bananas.
In many countries, including America there is a growing demand for organic and fair-trade bananas. Commercial production of the fruit and it’s intensive planting practices can lead to pollution to the land and the water of surrounding areas from the use of agro-chemicals and pesticides, and deforestation. Conditions for laborers can be very poor combined with minimal wages and the inability to bargain collectively for better conditions. Today, organizations like the Rainforest Alliance have helped to ensure that over 15% of all of the bananas available internationally adhere to the standards of responsible banana production, which were developed in1991. Chiquita Bananas and the Favorita Fruit Company's bananas come from plantations that have 100% certified by Rainforest Alliance for sustainable agriculture.
So grab a banana and enjoy. It's good for you and if you choose carefully, it can be good for someone else too.