The unlikely hero of the lockdown is… the banana

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It’s one of the first things you eat as a baby, and the last things you will probably eat as an old person. It’s saved many hungry bachelors and those living away from home when salaries run low or when you just can’t bear to clean up after yourself. For the poor, it is often a cheap, hearty meal; for the rich: it’s a topping on a Nutella crêpe. It’s offered to the gods at temples, used to break fast during Ramzan and fed to just-married couples as a symbol of fertility. And now, during these troubled times of coronavirus and lockdowns, we’re turning to the banana once again, to distract ourselves from the pandemic outside, by using it in bread, biscuits and ice cream. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the fact that for Indians, the banana has always been survival food.

“There is no country on earth that loves its bananas more [than India],” explains Dan Koeppel in his seminal book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. “The banana is one of India’s most plentiful offerings. The country grows 20 percent of the world’s bananas—about 17 million tons—each year. That’s three times more fruit than the world’s number two banana-producing nation, Ecuador—but unlike its South American rival, hardly any of the fruit produced in India is sent abroad.” Koeppel goes on to posit that India’s banana mania isn’t just an indicator of affection or necessity, but that it’s also a sign of diversity. In a country where we grow more than 670 types of bananas (wild and cultivated), bananas take on new shapes and avatars. There’s the Robusta, the green banana that we find at most street carts, the Dwarf Cavendish, also known as the elaichi banana, Poovan, Rasthali, Monthan, Karpuravalli, Nendran, Ney Poovan and many others that are cultivated across India.

Over the years, it’s gotten a bad rep as an unglamourous fruit that causes weight gain, however, the banana remains a creamy and rich source of potassium, vitamin B6, fiber, magnesium, vitamin C and manganese, per the Harvard T H Chan School Of Public Health. As part of the mid-day meals scheme that provides healthy, wholesome meals to underprivileged students across India, bananas feature prominently. “Bananas have a high nutritive value. It’s because of this very reason that Nendrakkai powder (made from the Nendram banana) is popular in Kerala. Sundried, powdered and turned into porridge to boost immunity, this is what we grew up on in Kerala, before the days of Cerelac,” explains chef Regi Mathew, co-owner of Kappa Chakka Kandhari, a restaurant that focuses on South Indian cuisine with outlets in Chennai and Bengaluru. “In Kerala there’s a saying… instead of an apple a day, it’s a banana a day that keeps the doctor away.”

“Right now what’s saving us are the frozen banana patties I have in my freezer. I made them a year ago with some excess bananas we had.I steamed and mashed them, added a filling of coconut and sugar and froze them. These days I pull out a few and pan grill it with some ghee. It’s excellent,”exclaims Nimmy Paul, a Kochi-based food consultant and cooking instructor, who has been stuck at home with little access to essentials for over two weeks now.

We’ve been bananas over bananas for a while
If there’s one thing we must appreciate about the banana, it’s the versatility of the fruit. Not just in taste and usage, but also how easily it cuts across class, caste and religion in India. The National Horticulture Board of India (NBH) explains it well in this report: ” It’s year-round availability, affordability, varietal range, taste, nutritive and medicinal value makes it the favourite fruit among all classes of people.”

“Owing to it’s easily-removable peel, the banana moved quite effortlessly across caste-conscious ancient India, keeping ritual purity intact. The peel allowed all and sundry to handle the fruit. Once it entered royal kitchens, the peels were simply discarded. In Hindu mythology, the banana is extremely auspicious. The banana tree is considered an avatar of Jupiter, it symbolises the union of Vishnu and Lakshmi, and in Bengal, it’s widely believed that Ganesha’s mother, Parvati created a wife for him using the banana plant, which is called ‘kola-bau’ and often seen in pandals during Durga puja,” explains food anthropologist and professor Kurush Dalal.

India’s passion for the fruit is by no means a recent phenomenon. We’ve been bananas over bananas for a while now. Bananas find mention in ancient South Indian texts, the bananas that Alexander the Great sampled for the first time were in India, in roughly 327 BC. Various theories of how the fruit reached Western shores are abound. Historians argue that wise ‘ol Alexander took them from India to Greece, few posit that the apple that Adam and Eve took a bite out of and carried with them outside the Garden of Eden was actually a banana (that was mistranslated across texts), while others believe the famed fruit travelled from South Asia via Arab trade routes. The jury’s out on the specifics, but what everyone agrees upon is the fact that the journey of the banana across the globe so many years ago, is what threatens its future.

Back when Banana Republic wasn’t a clothing label

At the end of the 19th Century, few entrepreneurs in America built a booming market for a product most Americans had never heard of. The banana was a commercial miracle, first making a big splash at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. So taken were Americans by the fruit that eating a banana was quickly seen as a symbol of power and status. Supply had to catch up with demand, fast. United Fruit, a company founded by Lorenzo Dow Baker—a fishing boat captain who capitalised on the banana boom in the US—amassed tracts of land from Guatemala to Colombia, clearing jungles to make way for plots of Gros Michel, a variety of the fruit he encountered in Jamaica. Business boomed and soon enough, United Fruit—now known as Chiquita—came to operate fairly similarly to the East India Company (in India) across Latin America, eventually giving rise to the term ‘banana republic’, to signify a small, politically unstable state with an economy dominated by a single export product controlled by foreign capital. All was well (at least for United Fruit) until crops across the region were hit by a deadly disease, now referred to as ‘Panama disease’. It practically wiped out the Gros Michel variety. The decline of the Gros Michel eventually gave rise to the Cavendish, the long, yellow variety we see across supermarkets now.