Plantain

Musa x paradisiaca

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Also cooking banana; platano and platano macho (Latin American)

People in the Northern Hemisphere are likely to look at this photo and think, “Sweet fruit.” But people in the Southern Hemisphere would be more likely to think of plantain as a staple starch. Plantain is cooked, much like potatoes, wherever it grows.

Questions about use are easily answered. Not so the questions raised (and not answered here) by a botanical description: Plantain is classified as Musa x paradisiaca (as are most bananas), a perennial herb, the fruit of which is a berry. The berry is called both banana and plantain (and by similar names) in many parts of the world, but depending upon the locale, the meanings may be reversed.

Plantain looks like a palm tree but isn’t: The “trunk” is made of the bases of spirally arranged, tightly overlapping broad leaves that form at ground level. The real stem is a large underground rhizome with massive roots. The “trunk” supports a mass of constantly emerging, shreddy upper leaves; then a florid phallic stem; and then clusters (“hands”) of fruit. When the fruit is picked, the plant is cut down or dies back (or both). It develops suckers that form a new “trunk” and the cycle repeats—sometimes for as long as 50 years.
The fruit is complicated, too, for each phase of ripeness has different characteristics and culinary possibilities: When the skin is green to nearly yellow, plantain is solid and starchy, like yuca or a dense waxy potato; when the skin is yellow to mottled brown, plantain has a slight fruitiness and a more tender but still firm texture; when brown to black-ripe, the golden flesh is creamy and sweet but holds its shape when cooked, unlike banana.

Banana and plantain have been so thoroughly absorbed by Latin American countries that many people think they are native to the New World. Yet this is a Southeast Asian plant, which landed in South America in the early 16th century and was not commercially available in the United States until the late 19th century. Plantain has become a symbol of assimilation in Latin America, says the historian Maricel Presilla, who likens it to the immigrants who “surrendered to the realities of weather and geography and reached for substitutions. . . . Soon the substitutions, the foods of the land, and the brand new creations become comforting. This is the moment of creolization or aplatanamiento [“plantainization”], when the alien, like the . . . plantain, becomes native, a familiar sight and flavor in the all-inclusive pot of the New World” (from the introduction to Latin Ladles by Douglas Rodriguez).

But if plantain found a permanent home in Latin America, it has remained somewhat alien in North America. Although new immigrants from Asia, Africa, India, the Caribbean, and South and Central America—all areas where plantain is commonplace—have put their starchy staple into mainstream markets, plantain is rarely explored by those who did not grow up with it at home. Its deliciousness deserves recognition beyond chips and tostones, however. Perhaps the following information will encourage the timid.

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