It started with a seed. It all starts from a seed, doesn’t it?
One day I bought a bunch of short, thick bananas from a woman down the street. When I got home I peeled one. In Thailand you peel the banana from the opposite end from the end we’re accustomed to. What we think of as the bottom of a banana is actually the top, the end that points up toward the sun. Peel one from the end you’re used to in front of a Thai family and expect a series of stares and snickers. I bit into the banana and began chewing, enjoying the texture, the not-too-sweet sweetness, when I encountered a seed and almost broke a tooth. Yes, a seed in my banana. Commercial varieties have been bred and cross-bred to not have seeds, they are clones after all, cloned for consumer and grower/shipper perfection. There were between one and three seeds in each of these local bananas in this particular bunch. Each seed was small, round and black, the same size and shape as a black peppercorn, only harder. I became intrigued; I had to learn more.
I turned to the internet to get an idea of the banana situation here in Thailand. I quickly learned that Thailand has 28 varieties, or between 60 and 70 varieties, or over 200 varieties of bananas. Surprising that. At least the information wasn’t being cloned.
In the US we know essentially only one banana, the Cavendish. It came to market in the late 1950s and early 60s to replace the supposedly superior Gros Michel variety that was adored worldwide and was being rapidly killed off by a fungus. The banana is America’s favorite fruit and surprisingly one of the cheapest you’ll come across in the US, despite it’s shipping requirements. Isn’t it odd that something so tropical, something so fragile to ship, something that needs to be kept from ripening while en route, is less expensive than a local apple? And just as surprising, Americans eat more bananas per year than apples and oranges combined. (Koeppel, 2008) Every once in a while in the produce section of your average American supermarket (if there is such a thing anymore) you may spy smaller bananas or red bananas, but you’re likely to shy away from them, I know I was. Why spend the extra money when you don’t know what it’ll taste like? The Cavendish is a known entity, always the same. As a clone, that’s the whole point. And in our culture consistency and reliability are the main goals in the marketplace, the McDonald’s model. Walk into any McDonald’s anywhere and you know exactly what you’ll be getting. Add to that our need for visual perfection at the supermarket and the Cavendish is the perfect fit/fruit.
In Thailand, living in a small village in the southern mountains, I typically see about a half dozen varieties of bananas on my daily rounds. Thais know the names of these much more readily than I do and can spout off whether I’m buying a Kluai Kai, Kluai Hom Thong, Kluai Nam Wah, or a Kluai Leb Mua Nang. Although that last one is easy to remember, Dancer’s Fingernail Banana, one of the smallest and cutest bananas around. In the US we have only the one banana and it’s the Cavendish. Sadly most Americans wouldn’t be able to name that, it’s just a banana, there’s only the one.
In the States we can go into any supermarket and tear off as many bananas as we want, 2, 5, 8, whatever we desire for the days ahead. In Thailand the entire bunch, the hand, the “wii”, is there for the taking, upwards to 20 bananas. Vendors won’t even entertain you ripping off just a few of the fruits, the fingers. With the smaller varieties of bananas, this hasn’t been too much of a problem, they get eaten quickly. But the larger varieties, those of similar size to the Cavendish, prove a bit more difficult for the single shopper. And since ovens are rare here, it’s difficult to plan banana bread. Although I do have a recipe for making banana bread in my rice cooker, I just haven’t tried it yet.
Purportedly the banana had it’s very humble beginnings in this part of the world, originating somewhere on or near the Malay Peninsula where I now live. And like our native American corn, we wouldn’t recognize the original fruit as anything resembling what we see and eat today. Most of you know already that along with money bananas don’t grow on trees, that the banana plant is actually the world’s largest herb, a perennial. The fruit is really a big berry and those original berries were loaded with seeds. The banana is likely to have been one of the first foods to be actively bred and cultivated and that cultivation slowly removed the seeds and helped move the banana quickly across the oceans. It is now the world’s largest fruit crop.
The fruit isn’t the only thing of interest or import about the banana even though that’s the only thing most of us think about. The flower can be eaten, and what flowers they are. The banana leaf is used extensively throughout Thailand and other banana growing countries in cooking, steaming, and wrapping foods. Fibers for clothing and for paper can be gotten from the banana plant. The underground plant stem (pseudostem), the corm (think Iris, Crocus or Gladiolus), can be steamed and eaten as well.
The Cavendish replaced the Gros Michel decades ago when a fungus appeared and quickly wiped out the old standard. That fungus, Panama Disease, still lingers and has the potential to rear its head again to change the fate of our favorite breakfast fruit. Another sinister disease is waiting to spread worldwide as well, Black Sigatoka. It’s not easy to find or develop disease-resistant varieties of bananas quickly that growers, and then consumers, will cherish as much as the Cavendish.
If you’re interested in learning more about the banana: its history, its production and its influence around the world, please enjoy Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel, 2008, Hudson Street Press.