What to Eat when the Stores are Empty (VI.)
Simple, Localized Approaches to Food Systems Resilience and Food Security in Southeast Asia --- Part Four: Staple food diversification – Bananas and Plantains --- [ERT: 10 min.]
Note: This article is part of an ongoing series about our culture’s predicament and possible solutions, and part of our effort to reach a broader local audience with the ideology we promote. Each part of this series is available in both Thai and English on our website. We’ve decided to publish each part separately, and whenever we finish another part I’ll post it here.
If you haven’t read the previous article (Staple food diversification – Cassava, Yams and various Wild Tubers), click here. To return to the index page (Foreword and Contents) and start from the beginning, please click here.
This series originally appeared on feunfoo.org.
Part Four: Staple food diversification – Bananas and Plantains
Bananas are easily the most underrated perennial staple food (outside of central Africa). There are few plants that produce as fast and in such overwhelming abundance as Bananas do. Bananas were one of the earliest cultivated crops in the entire region, with earliest evidence dating back to at least 10,000 years ago. They provide a whole host of different foods, the rhizome, the inner pseudostem, the flower, and the fruit – ripe or unripe – and even yield other useful materials such as fiber for cordage or leaves used as umbrella, temporary thatch, as a plate or to wrap food. Since bananas are relatively flood- and drought-tolerant once established, easily grow back even after the strongest hurricanes, can grow in basically any soil, and require very little care, they are another great choice to diversify our staple foods.
For most people in Southeast Asia, unripe Bananas are not a regular part of their diet. They might be used in certain foods, such as the spicy Southern Thai fish curry Gaeng Tai Plaa, but are generally not eaten frequently. Yet hundreds of millions of people depend on Bananas and Plantains for daily sustenance worldwide. Bananas are the fourth most important crop in the world (after rice, wheat, and maize), and the undisputed number one among fruits. In some places, such as humid tropical Africa, bananas are among the most important carbohydrate (starch) crops. To provide but one example: the average Ugandan eats over 200kg per year, and in the countryside individual consumption can be as high as 440kg per person per year!
To give an overview of just how underrated Bananas are as a staple food, consider the following calculation. Based on what we harvest in our garden (where the soil is mostly not that good yet), we have an average of maybe 30kg per bunch (sometimes more, sometimes less – depending on the cultivar). If you would want to eat Bananas as your main staple, you’d need to grow about ten trees (just to be sure) to be able to eat as much as an average Ugandan, and about twenty trees to eat as much as a rural Ugandan villager (or, if your soil is good, even less than that). That’s not that much! Even people who have access to very little land can easily grow ten to twenty clusters of Bananas!
Of course, Bananas fruit at different times, and especially if you plant all twenty trees at the same time, you’ll easily have a period (about a year and a half later) where you have more Bananas than you could ever eat, and other times where you barely have any for months at a time. This irregular fruiting is one of the main challenges when considering Bananas as a staple, but it can easily be solved either by constantly replanting them, or by planting forty instead of twenty bunches (or both). As with Artocarpus spp. (see Part Two), all surplus can be fed to chickens or other livestock, so you can never have “too much Bananas”. Again, the solution is to share with your community. Wherever a bunch is large enough to start harvesting unripe fruit, they can be shared with neighbors. Remember: “The best place to store food is in your friend’s belly!”
The upside of utilizing unripe bananas is that the harvest window is broader: you can break them off the living plant as needed as soon as they’re large enough, over a period spanning several months – whereas once the bunch starts turning yellow, you’ll only have days left to use them up.
There is a (somewhat arbitrary) binary classification of Banana cultivars into Plantains and Dessert Bananas, but the genetic reality is more complex. Without wanting to go into too much detail, most banana cultivars today derive from either or both of two ancestors, Musa acuminata (“A”) and Musa balbisiana (“B”), with those considered Dessert Bananas having more (or exclusively) M. acuminata genes (“A” types, like the Cavendish, generally sweeter and softer), and those considered Plantains containing more (or only) DNA of M. balbisiana (“B” types, like Saba Bananas, generally larger and with a firmer texture). Most Banana cultivars are thus somewhere in between different ends of a continuum within a hybrid swarm. For example, the most common (and most nutritious) Banana in Thailand (called Nam Wah; Pisang Awak in Malay) belongs to the AABB cultivar group, and is thus a tetraploid cultivar: containing four sets of chromosomes (DNA molecules), two from M. acuminata (A) and two from M. balbisiana (B).
There are, of course, a few exceptions, notably the Snow Banana (Ensete glaucum, a different genus that doesn’t produce shoots) and the Fe’i Banana cultivars (who also contains genes from M. peekelii and M. lolodensis – both from Oceania/Polynesia).
Usually people use Plantains as “Cooking Bananas”, and Dessert Bananas as a sweet snack, or, as the name implies, as a dessert. In fact, both kinds can be eaten cooked when harvested unripe, and some Dessert Bananas are actually very tasty when used as cooking ingredient! Furthermore, there are hundreds of cultivars in Southeast Asia (on our farm we currently grow about 30 different kinds), all with completely different flavors, and all adapted to certain specific conditions. Some like rain, others like longer dry periods, some enjoy plenty of sunshine, others prefer shady spots (up to 50 percent shade).
Dessert Bananas (and fully ripe Plantains as well!) taste incredible, and there are many different flavors to be discovered among the many cultivars. We usually eat ripe Bananas for breakfast, sometimes up to two hands (depending on the size). And throughout the day, whenever you feel a bit hungry, a Banana will quickly bring a smile to your face. Eating plenty of Bananas is one the best things you can do for your digestive tract, and this way you’ll never have any problems with constipation or indigestion. Barely ripe Bananas, on the other hand (where parts of the skin are still green) are a remedy against diarrhea. And stomachic water from the Banana trunk can be used as a digestive.
The ripe fruit can be processed into jams, ice cream (best when mixed with coconut milk), various traditional desserts (Khao Tom Mat – wrapped with sticky rice into banana leaves and steam-boiled, Gluay Buat Chee – boiled in coconut milk), or used as an ingredient in our famous Banana Cake!
Both the ripe and the unripe fruit can be (sun-)dried as well, either whole or cut in thin slices, and the resulting snack can be stored for longer periods.
There is even an easy way to make Banana flour: if you slice unripe Bananas into thin pieces, sun-dry them, and afterwards crush the dry pieces in a mortar, you can use the resulting flour for baking, just like you’d use wheat flour!
While we don’t utilize unripe Bananas that often (we still have access to rice and other staples, so we prefer to eat our Bananas ripe as a sweet fruit), we could switch easily to utilizing them a lot more in an emergency situation. We use them sometimes as a potato-like ingredient in soups and curries (peeled and boiled), and sometimes as a starchy snack for breakfast (grilled or roasted).
The easiest method to prepare unripe bananas is to throw them straight into the fire, pretty much like Breadfruit (see Part Two). You wait until all sides are burned black, let them cool down a bit, and then just peel and eat them together with other foods such as curries, stir-fries, soups, or salads. This method obviously works better with Plantains, since they have a thicker skin (so the flesh doesn’t get burned). The whole unripe fruit can also be boiled, and used in the same fashion as grilled bananas.
Another easy way is to peel the unripe fruit and add them to curries, stews and soups. They take some time until they’re soft (about 10-15 min.), but taste pretty much like Potatoes or Taro afterwards. This method works excellent with all Dessert Bananas as well! The more Bananas you add to your food, the less rice (or other staples) you need to eat alongside with it!
The first time Bananas were cultivated – long before agriculture was widely adopted – they were believed to be grown for their starchy rhizomes, called corms, since the fruit was rather small and full of seeds. Those corms are not very tasty but still edible, although few people eat them regularly. In the province we live in, Chanthaburi, people still prepare an ancient traditional dish made from Banana corms. The corms of young shoots (preferably of the Nam Wah variety) are peeled, sliced into thin pieces (like Papaya for Papaya Salad, or grilled Bamboo Shoots for Bamboo Shoot Soup) and added to the curry as a main ingredient.
The corms of various Ensete species are eaten in Ethiopia, although it’s difficult to find actual methods of preparation.
The flowers can be boiled and either eaten plain, with chili paste, or added to soups, stir-fries, curries and stews. Raw flowers are edible as well, but bitter in some varieties. We use the chopped, boiled flowers to make a dish called Laab Plee Gluay (Spicy Banana Flower Salad), but they can be added to basically any dish.
Same with the “heart” – the white, soft inside layers of the pseudostem. They are delicious and crunchy, especially if you add them to the pot/pan right before the food is finished. Banana hearts contain plenty of dietary fiber, which is essential for good health. The very inner part can also be eaten raw, as a snack or a vegetable together with other dishes.
Growing Bananas is incredibly easy. They are propagated by transplanting shoots, and most varieties will give plenty of shoots that can be replanted. The three most important things when planting them is the size of the hole you dig, the soil you mix, and the mulch you use. The bigger the hole in which the Bananas are planted, the faster they fruit: we once had a cluster fruiting after not even a year, because it was planted in a one-meter-deep and -wide hole. Once you excavated the soil, you can mix it with anything you have at hand: animal manure or compost works best, but dry leaves, grass cuttings, charcoal, ashes, kitchen waste or food scraps work perfectly fine as well. The more different things you work into the soil, the faster the plants will grow! After planting, it’s best to mulch the Banana plants as much as possible. Cuttings from trees or grass are perfect, but you can use anything that’s available and organic: fruit peels, kitchen waste, straw, dry leaves, etc.
It’s best to plant Bananas throughout your Food Jungle, at different locations with different soil types and water availability. Optionally, you’d want to have one productive cluster right at a greywater outlet (or around the place where you bathe or do the dishes) – the waste water contains valuable nutrients that the Bananas readily utilize! With year-round water, a mature Banana plant will produce fruit every few months. Plantains are generally more tolerant of wind and longer dry seasons, but all types of Bananas can be grown throughout the region. Bananas are very susceptible to diseases when planted in monocultures, but this threat is virtually eliminated by cultivation in a diverse ecosystem such as a Food Jungle (See Part One). Intercropped with other plants, diseases can’t spread easily, and thus don’t pose a great risk. Individual shoots may be attacked by certain weevils (most notably the Banana Root Borer, Cosmopolites sordidus), especially if they are not very healthy, but infected shoots can simply be cut in half and the larva can be either killed or eaten.
Bananas require little attention or care: the only favor you could do them is to cut off yellowing leaves and mulch the base with them. Too many dry leaves will attract insects, some of whom might attack the plant. If you want maximum productivity, it is recommended to maintain three to four stems per plant – one large, one medium, one small, one tiny – and cut down any excess shoots or replant them elsewhere.
They can be planted along basically every other tree in the emerging Food Jungle: the fast-growing Bananas spend shadow for the small trees, create a cooler microclimate, and, once ripe, the stems can be chopped and used to mulch the soil (see Part Eight). Mulch from the Banana stem contains plenty of water, and will moisten the soil when applied to the base of smaller fruit trees during dry season. Earthworms and other soil organisms also love all parts of the Banana plant!
The name of this Series asks a simple question: what the hell do we eat when there’s no food in the stores or markets, and one of the simplest answers to this question is: Bananas. There are already Banana plants all over the entire region! If there would be a massive harvest failure and rice prices skyrocket as a result (meaning only the richest can still access it), Bananas would be an immediate relief for this terrifying situation. And in the long term, Bananas are a steady insurance against any disruptions to the Food System, and create local Food Security with very little effort.
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Stay tuned for “Part Five: Food diversification – Protein sources” - Coming soon!
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Love our bananas but I wish we had as many varieties as you guys!