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Bananas at a Glance
History Uses Name Origin Medical Benefits Recipes
Growing Nutrition Purchasing Preparation

Going Bananas probably sounds more like the title of a Woody Allen or Marx Brothers movie than a piece of history that brought the banana from its humble ancient beginnings in Southeast Asia to Central America and, finally, to the breakfast tables of North America.

Bananas were thriving in Central America for about 350 years but had never touched the North American soil during that time. One man with more than a moderate dose of greed and ambition was partly responsible for introducing the banana to the United States and Europe. Minor Keith, 23, began the treacherous undertaking of building a railroad through the jungles of Costa Rica in the year 1871.

Many lives were lost during the dangerous construction, but Keith blindly pursued his path. At the same time he created banana plantations on either side of the railroad. By 1881 Keith was sending his bananas by rail to the sea where they were shipped to the United States.

About the time Keith was building his railroad and cultivating bananas in Costa Rica, a Cape Cod sea captain named Lorenzo Dow Baker discovered a "strange fruit" in a marketplace in Jamaica. He brought 160 bunches of these unusual fruits called bananas back to New Jersey and sold them for $2 a bunch, launching a new business with a healthy profit.

Ten years later Baker became a partner with Minor Keith and Andrew Preston, a Boston businessman, to found the successful Boston Fruit Company.

Banana Another merger in 1899 formed the United Fruit Company and created such a powerful company of railroads, steamships, and banana plantations throughout Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama and Santo Domingo, that they were able to influence and control the governments of these countries. The banana plantations had created such a major export throughout the countries of Central America and the Caribbean that those regions were known as the "banana republics."

The company's greatest misdeeds involved corruption and political influence in Guatemala, where they were able to exempt themselves from taxes for 99 years. In addition, United Fruit Company held much of the unused Guatemalan land, preventing the native population from using it. This issue became a political entanglement that involved the U.S. government and Guatemala with United Fruit charging that Guatemala was a communist government. Subsequently, the U.S. invaded the country to wrest it from communist control.

Today the Del Monte company owns United Fruit Company that fell into financial difficulties during the 1970s.

Despite its infamous Central American involvements, the delectable banana ranks second in popularity among fruits, bowing to the apple in the number one position. Central America, however, is not the actual origin of the banana that is considered one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world. Scholars of history often debate whether the actual forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was an apple. The Koran states that it was a banana.

The true origins of the banana are to be found centuries earlier in the region of Malaysia. By way of curious visitors, bananas traveled to India where they are mentioned in the Buddhist Pali writings dating back to the 6th century BCE as well as in national epic poems of India that have ancient beginnings.

In his campaign in India in 327 BCE, Alexander the Great relished his first taste of the banana, an usual fruit he saw growing on tall trees. He is even credited with bringing the banana from India to the Western world.

Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher and natural scientist, 372 to 287 BCE, retells a legend about wise men who sat under the shade of the banana tree and ate some of its fruit. In the time of the legend the banana plant was given the botanical name that translates as "banana of the sages." Though the botanical name is now obsolete, it makes good story telling.

According to Chinese historian Yang Fu, China was tending plantations of bananas in 200 CE. These bananas grew only in the southern region of China and were considered exotic, rare fruits that never became popular until the 20th century.

Eventually, this tropical fruit reached Madagascar, an island off the southeastern coast of Africa. Beginning in 650 CE Islamic warriors traveled into Africa and were actively engaged in the slave trade. Along with the thriving business in slave trading, the Arabs were successful in trading ivory along with abundant crops of bananas. Through their numerous travels westward via the slave trade, bananas eventually reached Guinea, a small area along the West Coast of Africa.

By 1402 Portuguese sailors discovered the luscious tropical fruit in their travels to the African continent and populated the Canary lslands with their first banana plantations.

Continuing the banana's travels westward, the rootstocks were packed onto a ship under the charge of Tomas de Berlanga, a Portuguese Franciscan monk who brought them to the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo from the Canary Islands in the year 1516. It wasn't long before the banana became popular throughout the Caribbean as well as Central America.

Naming the Banana
Arabian slave traders are credited with giving the banana its popular name. The bananas that were growing in Africa as well as Southeast Asia were not the eight-to-twelve-inch giants that have become familiar in the U.S. supermarkets today. They were small, about as long as a man's finger. Ergo the name banan, Arabic for finger. Or, possibly the name banana comes from West Africa where the Guinean word banema was in use.

The Spaniards, who saw a similarity to the plane tree that grows in Spain, gave the plantain its Spanish name, platano.

Almost three hundred and fifty years later Americans tasted the first bananas to arrive in this country. Wrapped in tinfoil, bananas were sold for 10 cents each at a celebration held in Pennsylvania in 1876 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Instructions on how to eat a banana appeared in the Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information and read as follows:

Bananas are eaten raw, either alone or cut in slices with sugar and cream, or wine and orange juice. They are also roasted, fried or boiled, and are made into fritters, preserves, and marmalades.

Bananas By the end of the 1800s, the U.S. was importing 16 million bunches of bananas a year from Central America. This was no easy feat since bananas ripen quickly and spoil easily. In 1903 bananas traveled northward on the first refrigerated ship called the Venus. Today refrigerated ships transport bananas all over the world throughout the year. A special cooling system interrupts the ripening of the bananas, delaying the process until they reach their destination.

Bananas in International Cuisines
A popular dish in the Caribbean features banana fritters flavored with rum, a dish that consists of chunks of bananas that are dipped in flour, then into a rich batter. They are deep-fried in hot oil until golden and then sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Panchamrutham, confections that are spiced and sweetened with honey, are a favorite in India. Other favorites of India include Sweet Banana Lassi, a sweet cooling beverage made of yoghurt and banana, and a sweet yoghurt cheese made with banana, pistachios and almonds, and spiced with cardamom.

The Banana Split, America's classic dessert, became popular in the 1920s. Its first appearance in Pennsylvania in 1904 consisted of a banana split in half, lengthwise, two or three scoops of ice cream, a generous serving of chocolate sauce and strawberry sauce, and the traditional maraschino cherry on the top.

Brazilians make a dessert with mashed bananas mixed with brown sugar, grated ginger, and cinnamon or cloves. This mixture is slowly cooked over low heat until it thickens. When cool, it is molded into a roll, then sliced and served cold.

The banana flower, also called the banana heart, is stripped of its outer reddish leaves, sliced and added to salads, cooked in coconut milk, cooked into curry dishes, or added to vegetable stews throughout Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia.

Even the leaves of the banana plant become incorporated into the cuisines of nearly all of the tropical regions that grow bananas. A banana leaf can be as long as twelve feet by two feet in width, so pieces of one leaf can go a long way. Wrapping combinations of vegetables and spices in banana leaves and steaming them is common from Central America to Java. The flavor can be described as smoky, slightly cooling, and delicately fragrant.

The banana leaf also provides the ideal barrier between the pot and the wood fire, preventing many a rice dish or vegetable stew from burning. In many rural areas of the Philippines the banana leaf is almost essential where cooking over a wood fire is the only way to cook.

Throughout Southeast Asia and parts of India the banana leaf is also used as serving plate, and a number of leaves double as a tablecloth. Sometimes a piece of banana leaf is twisted into a small cone and held together with a sliver to create a container for peanuts or boiled corn. A larger cone becomes that day's container for a farmer's lunch, or it might hold some rice and fish. It even doubles as a container for a take-out meal from the local Chinese restaurant.

Banana leaves are also used as thatching for houses and the base for hemp-like rope. In the Philippines banana fibers are used to make paper.

Bananas in Entertainment
The banana even made its presence known with singer Louis Prima's recording of the songs "Banana Split for by Baby" and "Please Don't Squeeze Da Banana."

The King Sisters, Buddy Clark, Xavier Cugat, and Mitch Miller all performed the "Chiquita Banana" song in the 1940s and 1950s, a song that was used in a radio commercial for bananas.

"Yes! We Have No Bananas" was originally performed in 1923 by Billy Jones and was popular through the1930s. In the 1950s Spike Jones and Mitch Miller both brought the song back for a successful revival.

Vaudeville comedian Harry Steppe coined the phrase "top banana, " an expression to describe the top comedian performing in the show. "Second banana" was used for the supporting performer who played a secondary role.

There are two main varieties of bananas, the fruit or sweet banana and the plantain. The fruit banana is eaten raw out of hand when it turns yellow and develops a succulent sweetness with a soft, smooth, creamy, yet firm pulp.

Bananas The plantain, a cooking banana, is also referred to as the meal, vegetable or horse banana. Plantains have lower water content, making them drier and starchier than fruit bananas.

Though the banana plant has the appearance of a sort of palm tree, and is often called a banana palm, it is actually considered a perennial herb. It dies back after each fruiting and produces new growth for the next generation of fruit.

Bananas do not grow simply from seed. Man intervened long ago and crossed two varieties of African wild bananas, the Musa acuminata and the Musa baalbisiana, got rid of the many seeds that were an unpleasant presence, and improved the flavor and texture from hard and unappetizing to its present soft and irresistibly sweet flavor.

Today bananas must be propagated from large rootstocks or rhizomes that are carefully transplanted in a suitable climate, namely the hot tropics, where the average temperature is a humid 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius), and a minimum of 3 1/2 inches (75 mm) of rainfall a month. The soil must have excellent drainage or the rootstocks will rot. The plants grow new shoots, often called suckers, pups, or ratoons, from the shallow rootstocks or rhizomes, and continue to produce new plants generation after generation for several decades.

In about nine months the plants reach their mature height of about 15 to 30 feet. Some varieties will grow to a height of 40 feet. From the stems, that are about 12 inches thick, flower shoots begin to produce bananas.

If you have never seen bananas growing, you might be puzzled that they appear to be growing upside-down with their stems connected to the bunch at the bottom and the tips pointing upward. Bananas possess a unique scientific phenomenon called "negativ geotropism." As the little bananas start to develop, they grow downward--as gravity would dictate. Little by little, several "hands" or double rows develop vertically and form a partial spiral around the stem. As they take in more and more sunlight, their natural growth hormones bring about a most puzzling phenomenon, and they begin to turn and grow upward.

As the plant becomes heavier with maturing fruit, it must be supported with poles. The stems are made of layers and layers of leaves that are wrapped around each other. Though quite large and thick, the stems are not strong and woody like most fruit trees and can break under the weight of many bunches of bananas.

Though there are approximately 300 species of bananas, only 20 varieties are commercially cultivated. Local populations and visitors who experience the regional cuisines when they travel enjoy the many non-commercial varieties. Members of the Musaceae family, the banana plant belongs to the monocotyledons, a group that includes palms, grasses, and orchids.

Bananas are mature about three months from the time of flowering, with each bunch producing about 15 "hands" or rows. Each hand has about 20 bananas while each bunch will yield about 200 "fingers" or bananas. An average bunch of bananas can weigh between 80 and 125 pounds (35 to 50 kilograms).

Two-man teams harvest the bananas. While one man whacks the bunch with his machete, the other catches the falling bunch onto his shoulders and transfers it to a hook attached to one of a series of conveyer cables that run throughout the plantation.

Though bananas can be left to ripen on the plant, they would perish too quickly. It is important that they are harvested in the green state at just the right time. If harvested too early, they would develop a floury pulp instead of a delightfully sweet flavor. Bananas begin the ripening process as soon as they are harvested, when laboratory tests have shown that they contain 20% starch and 1% sugar. When the bananas turn yellow with some brown spots, they are fully ripened, and these figures are completely reversed. The sugar content breaks down as follows: 66% sucrose, 14% fructose, and 20% glucose.

After the bananas have been harvested, the giant stems are cut down to provide rich humus for the next crop that has already begun to sprout new shoots.

Each plantation has a packing station where bananas are graded for quality. Those that are poor quality are sold in local markets or pureed and used as animal feed. The next step is to cut the bananas into individual hands and wash them in a water bath to stop "bleeding" their natural latex or rubber substance that tends to stain the bananas as well as clothing.

Though there are many countries where bananas are grown, not all grow them for export. Brazil, China, India, and Thailand grow them as a local food source and export very few. The major exporters include Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, the Philippines, Panama, and Guatemala.

Surprisingly, 80% of the bananas grown throughout the world are of the plantain or cooking variety. To many tropical cultures, plantains are an important part of the daily diet and are prepared in as many ways as other cultures have devised for potatoes.

Bananas Plantains may be more familiar to you as banana chips that are first dried, then fried. These cooking bananas are even employed in the brewing of beer in some areas of East Africa.

Brazil and Kenya grow a unique fruit banana called Apple Banana whose flavor reminds one of an apple. This special variety is only three to four inches in length. Another special variety is the Lady's Finger, an especially small banana with a sweet, creamy texture that grows in Thailand, Malaysia, and Colombia. You can recognize the Red Banana by its reddish brown skin. The flesh inside also has a reddish tinge, and the flavor is sweet with a satin-like texture. These grow in most regions where bananas thrive.

Medicinal Uses
Researchers found that two or three bananas a day were beneficial in treating children with celiac disease, an intolerance to grains that contain gluten such as wheat, rye, oats, and barley.

People who enjoy snow sports may on occasion experience mild episodes of frostbite if exposed to the cold too long. Applying the inside of the banana skin to the frostbitten area will bring immediate relief.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s bananas were fed to malnourished children in New England summer camps created to prevent the children from contacting tuberculosis. At one camp in Massachusetts, the children gained weight and thrived because their diet included two bananas daily in addition to other foods.

American folklore gives credit to the banana for contributing to longevity, curing corns, headaches, warts and even stage fright. In her 1933 advice column Ann Landers suggested applying the inside of a banana peel to cure a wart. In a 1997 column she advises headache sufferers to apply the inside of one half a banana peel to the forehead and the other half to the back of the neck. Her column noted that 85 percent of those who have tried this cure found relief within 30 minutes.

The practitioners of Chinese medicine recommend the banana for lowering blood pressure and relieving constipation and hemorrhoids.

Nutritional Benefits
Because of their impressive potassium content, bananas are highly recommended by doctors for patients whose potassium is low. One large banana, about 9 inches in length, packs 602 mg of potassium and only carries 140 calories.

That same large banana even has 2 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. No wonder the banana was considered an important food to boost the health of malnourished children.

Those reducing sodium in their diets can't go wrong with a banana with its mere 2 mgs of sodium. For the carbohydrate counters there are 36 grams of carbs in a large banana.

Vitamins and minerals are abundant in the banana, offering 123 I.U. of vitamin A for the large size. A full range of B vitamins are present with .07 mg of Thiamine, .15 mg of Riboflavin, .82 mg Niacin, .88 mg vitamin B6, and 29 mcg of Folic Acid. There are even 13.8 mg of vitamin C.

On the mineral scale Calcium counts in at 9.2 mg, Magnesium 44.1 mg, with trace amounts of iron and zinc. Putting all of the nutritional figures together clearly shows the banana is among the healthiest of fruits.

The plantain, when cooked, rates slightly higher on the nutritional scale in vitamins and minerals but similar to the banana in protein and fiber content.

Yellow bananas are available year round. Other varieties may also be available in large supermarkets, but ethnic markets are the place to shop for the exotics. Hispanic, Philippine, and Thai markets offer more diversity. There you can find red bananas, burro bananas, plantains, and occasionally Lady Fingers.

Select bananas that are slightly green, firm, and without bruises. If the bananas have a gray tint and a dull appearance, these have been refrigerated, preventing them from ripening properly.

Most Americans avoid purchasing plantains mainly because they do not know how to select them and what to do with them. Plantains can be purchased in any state of ripeness, from very green and firm to completely black and soft, but it is important to note that the very green ones will test your patience.

Banana chips are available in most supermarkets. Because they are sometimes deep-fried in unhealthy oils, they are very high in calories. We recommend avoiding these or eating them only occasionally.

Never store unripe bananas in the refrigerator. They simply will not ripen properly because the cold interferes with the ripening process. Bringing refrigerated bananas back to room temperature will not reverse the process. However, once bananas are ripe, they can be refrigerated for up to two weeks. Take note that their skins will turn black.

Plantain Give yellow-green bananas time to ripen at room temperature to a sunny yellow color, from one to three days, or they will taste astringent and be difficult to digest.

Ripen plantains at room temperature. They may take up to three weeks to soften and ripen to a dull yellow color mottled with numerous black spots.

Most fruits give off an ethylene gas in the process of ripening. Because bananas release a higher concentration of ethylene gas, they ripen quickly. If you've bought green bananas and want to accelerate the ripening, place them into a paper or plastic bag. Adding an apple to the bag will encourage faster ripening.

To take advantage of very ripe bargain bananas, simply peel them, cut them into chunks, and wrap them in plastic. Tuck them into the freezer and use as needed for smoothies, or defrost and mash them for baking or making fruit sauces.

Nothing beats the pleasure of savoring a fresh banana. It comes in its own protective casing, needs no washing, no preparation, and no special equipment. Just peel and enjoy!

A particularly delightful treat is to put banana chunks into the freezer until partially frozen. Remove and give them a whirl in the blender. Then enjoy a frothy ice cream-like dessert--a great summertime dish.

Mash ripe bananas and enjoy them for breakfast as a topping over raw, soaked grains like steel cut oats. See the Recipe Index for Raw Rocky Road Oats.

Mashed banana sauce adds a special touch to a fresh fruit salad.

Enjoy sliced bananas in cold cereals.

Make a breakfast smoothie thickened with ripe bananas.

Plantains can be boiled, roasted, baked, or deep-fried. First, score each plantain lengthwise with a sharp knife, then peel. Slice fully ripened plantains about 1/4-inch (1 cm) thick and spread them on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Bake at 375 (Gas Mark 5) for about 10 minutes. Turn them, and bake another 10 minutes. Enjoy as a simple dessert or serve the baked plantains as a side dish at the dinner table.

Plantains can also be eaten uncooked if left to ripen fully with their skins completely blackened and pulp almost mushy when gently squeezed.

Mashed ripe bananas can be added to breads, pancakes, cakes, muffins, and cookies.

One mashed ripe banana, or approximately 1/3 cup (80 ml), can take the place of one egg when baking.


For a delightful raw banana dessert, prepare ahead.

4 ripe, firm bananas

1/2 cup (120 ml) water
3/4 cup (180 ml) raw carob powder
1/4 cup (60 ml) maple syrup
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 teaspoon imitation maple extract
1/4 teaspoon imitation rum extract

2 cups (480 ml) crushed raw nuts of your choice or even a combination (walnuts, pecans, macadamias)

  1. Peel firm ripe bananas, cut them in half crosswise, insert a heavy skewer into the base of each banana half, and freeze them.
  2. Prepare a carob sauce by processing water, carob powder, maple syrup, canola oil, and flavor extracts in the blender until the texture resembles a thin flowing sauce. Put this sauce into a deep, wide-mouth glass.
  3. Spread crushed raw nuts out onto a large dish.
  4. Assemble by dipping each frozen banana into the carob sauce, then rolling in crushed nuts. Makes 8 servings. Sauce recipe makes about 1 cup (240 ml.)

Breakfast or brunch becomes a special treat when nutty pancakes are on the menu. Serve them with maple syrup or your favorite topping, and round out the meal with a sauté of onions, peppers, and potatoes. Broiled or sliced tomatoes, fresh fruit salad and some soy sausages or soy bacon make the breakfast a hearty extravaganza.

Banana Pecan Pancakes is one of the delicious recipes from Zel Allen's cookbook The Nut Gourmet; Nourishing Nuts for Every Occasion published by Book Publishing Company in 2006.


1 pound (450 g) extra-firm tofu
3/4 cup (180 ml) mashed ripe bananas (about 2 bananas)
1/2 cup (120 ml) whole wheat pastry flour
1/3 cup (80 ml) regular soy milk
3 tablespoons evaporated cane juice
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon maple extract
Dash salt
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon whole flaxseeds

2/3 cup (160 ml) chopped pecans

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees (Gas Mark 6) and line 3 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Break the tofu into pieces and put them into the food processor. Add bananas, flour, soymilk, evaporated cane juice, lemon juice, vanilla extract, ground cinnamon, maple extract, and salt. Process until well blended.
  3. Combine the water and flaxseeds in the blender and blend on low speed for about 1 minute, until the mixture becomes thick and viscous (the consistency will be similar to thick oatmeal). Add to the tofu mixture in the food processor and process until well mixed. Transfer to a large bowl and add the pecans, stirring well to distribute them evenly.
  4. Drop the batter by heaping tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheets, putting about 12 to 15 pancakes on each sheet. Keep the pancakes small, no larger then 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter, for easier turning. Flatten the pancakes slightly with a fork so they will bake evenly
  5. Place 2 of the baking sheets in the oven and bake for 12 minutes. Turn the pancakes with a spatula, reverse the baking sheets (move the upper baking sheet to the lower rack and the lower baking sheet to the upper rack), and bake 7 to 8 minutes longer. Place the finished pancakes on a serving dish and bake the remaining pancakes.

For some ideas on how to use overipe bananas check with Aunt Nettie at http://www.vegparadise.com/asknettie4.html

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