Saturday, November 21, 2009

The bountiful banana

Banana trees, found throughout Thailand, are actually not trees; they are classified herbaceous flowering plants or ‘pseudostems’. The banana plant has one main upright pseudostem which produces flowers (one is pictured above): a male flower and a female flower. The male banana flower grows on each stem of the plant, while the female banana flower grows further up on the banana plant and produces the actual banana fruit without requiring fertilization. Each pseudostem produces a bunch of bananas and then dies. Then the plant regenerates itself and grows more pseudostems, with the process continuing in a cycle.

The great benefit of bananas is that the banana plant can produce fruit year-round. There is no “banana season” in Thailand; the bananas grow on an unlimited basis. This versatile plant also has useful leaves: traditionally in Thailand, street vendors wrap sticky rice and other ‘khanom’ (sweets) in banana leaves, keeping food fresh and minimizing waste. What’s more, the banana flower itself is edible and plays a role in Thai cuisine, in a banana flower salad known as “Yam hua plee” which involves a mix of shallots, fish sauce, garlic and chili placed in the banana flower, which functions as the ‘outer shell’ of the dish.

In Thailand, some of the more popular uses of the banana besides eating them fresh are fried banana chips, which can be flavored and spiced up with chili peppers, pizza flavor or really anything imaginable; and sun-dried, honey-sweetened bananas. Green, unripe bananas are also used as a garnish in some dishes, although the taste of green banana is an acquired one. There are so many uses for the multi-talented banana, a plant full of untapped potential which has yet to be explored.

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