For years we passed over them in the grocery store in lieu of the safer, more familiar bananas. For as long as I could remember they were always there; those other bananas. Ones that weren't yellow, but instead a deep burgundy-brown color. A color I, for whatever reason deduced by childhood logic, assumed was the de-facto lipstick color for black and white movie stars like Vivian Leigh and Tallulah Bankhead. If it wasn't those tiny red ones, then there were those ginormous bananas that were as hard as rocks and called plantains.
I would ask my mom if we could get one, but every time she said no. "Let's just get the regular bananas," and she would find the biggest, greenest bunch on the display and bag it. The discussion would be closed and I would analyze the oddly huge plantains and tiny red bananas a quick second more before moving on. Maybe next time we would get them.
Sure, there were more intriguing pineapples nearby, whose pokey shape tempted my curiosity. (I would always prick my finger on the punk-rock spines on top, as if always to make sure that, yes, they were indeed sharp.) Piles of kiwis were always scattered about in large piles; it was, after all, the nineties. Mangoes and the humid fragrance they carried with them were only just making their way to the supermarkets. Yet, these strange bananas were the real mystery. Always present.
I think it was because these doppelgangers bordered the familiar. When something is completely foreign we simply accept that it's a mystery. Something to be figured out. The fact that it's unknown from the start is what makes it so natural and acceptable. These banana look-alikes weren't like that though. These were familiar. They had an appearance so similar to what was a regular, everyday food to me. Yet, they had characteristics that were unable to be ascertained. They were aberrations in my otherwise orderly and understood world.
I reasoned, then, that if these fruits looked like bananas then they probably tasted like bananas, but only different. I was curious what they taste like. Would they be sweeter? Bitter? Harder to eat? The plantains were always hard as potatoes. I wondered if they tasted like bananas but had the crisp texture of an apple? What if it tasted totally different, like a steak or piece of over-steamed cauliflower? The prospects were both horrifying and appetizing, but exciting all the same.
Then years went by. I grew up and began to do my own shopping. Even as a younger teen, then college student, and all the sudden an adult (still not sure when that happened) I still passed over them. "Maybe I'll buy one next time," I thought. For years, since my childhood, I passed them over for next time. Next time, when I had an extra hour or more of a budget to play around with strange tropical fruits.
Finally, one day, out of nowhere, I decided to get some and cook them. As if all my childhood curiosity had been suddenly stirred I was filled with a need to play with plantains. I quickly did a google search and picked up some information. After grazing over some recipes and sites I knew the following:
- Plantains are big.
- Plantains are starchy and must be cooked.
- Black plantains are sweeter.
- Plantains are popular in Cuba, Peru, Uganda, Taiwan and the Dominican Republic. Really, anywhere not continental North America, Australia, or Europe.
- Plantains are best when fried and served with a sweet or savory dipping sauce, or when stuffed with spiced beef and baked.
I arrived home to see that BF had failed me. There they sat; tiny and red. "Um, sweetie, these are red bananas. Not plantains."
"What? But, the sign said plantains."
"Yes, well, they would have been sitting there next to the bananas too, yes. But do these look like giant bananas you could fight crime with? You would get your ass kicked with these."
"Not if you threw them." Touche', but still, failure none the less. So, BF and I made another quick run to the store for the plantains and where he showed me the source of his confusion. The signs were skewed and not lined up with the actual fruits. In front of the the plantains was a sign for red bananas that sat close to me in front of the plantains, while the sign for the plantains sat a little to the left of the pile. Still... BF fessed up, "I wasn't paying much attention. I just kinda dashed in and dashed out." I shrugged at him and picked a few giant, seemingly ripe plantains. I guess I would get to try both mystery fruits. I assumed my inner child was appeased and left it at that.
Back home, I decided to sit down and try these fruits out. I would satisfy my curiosity once and for all.
The red banana peeled back to reveal a typical looking banana. The flesh had a slight blush to it that I found somewhat amusing. Taste-wise it - surprise - tasted like a banana. Maybe with a slight tang; the kind you would associate with a raspberry. Not the flavor of one, just the tang. Otherwise, it was like any other banana.
It was all a bit sad really. No great revelation. No more mystery. All I had was a red banana peel and a sense that it could have used a few more days to ripen.
I knew it was fruitless to try the plantain raw. Just picking it up I could tell it had all the edibility of a raw potato. I decided that I would simply give it a double fry treatment. This meant lightly frying small discs of the plantain to soften it, before squishing them and tossing them in for a final fry. A simple caramel sauce made from brown sugar and coconut milk would sauce them and make it an easy, tropical dessert that wouldn't just contrast against the dull, Autumn weather outside, but appetizingly demystify the plantain.
The gently cooked plantains resulted in sweet, soft fruit with a nicely crisp skin. The sonorously rich caramel sauce complimented the starchy flavors of the plantain. The dessert was something whose simple decadence rivaled the most chocolate-heavy dishes. Unlike the tarted-up red bananas, whose outward appearance seems to promise more than the flesh can deliver, plantains have a unique flavor. Yes, they're slightly banana-esque, but they possess a custard flavor and pound cake texture that bananas don't have. Eating each piece of caramel soaked plantain reminded me of plates of warm, freshly made flan.
In the end, my curiosity was satisfied. It seemed that an inquisitive nature and desire to know new foods, even ones that are readily available, can lead to new tastes and even the quelling of childhood questions.
Next up on my foreign fruit list? The quest for fresh mangosteen.
2 ripe plantains
vegetable oil for frying
1. Cut open the plantain and cut into discs about 3/4-inch thick. Set aside.
2. Place oil in a fry pan. You want the oil to be about 1/4-inch deep. Warm oil over medium heat, to about 180F if measured with a thermometer. Place the plantains in the oil being sure not to crowd them (you will probably have to do this in batches. The oil will bubble around the plantains. Fry for 2 minutes on each side, then set on a paper towel lined plate to drain.
3. Lightly squish each plantain a bit so it has more surface area. Fry the plantains a second time, about 4 minutes on both sides being careful not to burn them. Drain on a paper towel lined plate and serve hot.
Coconut Caramel Sauce
1/4 cup of brown sugar
1/2 cup of coconut milk
pinch of kosher salt
Place the brown sugar in a small but high sauce pot. Warm over medium-high heat while consistently stirring with a spoon until melted. While stirring slowly pour in the coconut milk. The mixture will bubble and froth violently, and some of the sugar may crystallize a bit. Continue to stir until the sugar and coconut milk have mixed together and the sauce has reduced a bit. About 5 minutes. Take off heat and stir in the salt. This will keep in the fridge for a few weeks.