In the not-so-distant past, most of us thought there were two kinds of bananas — small ones and large ones, because that was the choice we had in the shops and at markets.
But there are some 35 species of banana and more than 300 varieties with a considerable range in size and colour.
We Europeans don’t get to try many of those 300 varieties and in Majorca we have a choice of five or six. The most ubiquitous of the lot are from the Canaries, which you see on every fruit stall and at all supermarkets.
Because of the influx of South Americans and Africans, the plantains and the green dwarf bananas are also widely available. Both of them must be cooked. The plantain is boiled or fried and is usually served as a starchy vegetable with meat, poultry or fish, often in spicy-hot sauces.
Many readers will remember when bananas first went on sale in Britain after the Second World War. I have a vivid recollection of the first banana I ever ate but I can’t put an exact date on it. It was probably some time 1946. They weren’t rationed but they could only be bought at one’s local greengrocer who kept them for his regular customers.
We kids took them to school to eat during the morning break and used to scrape the pulp off the skin with our front teeth. I tried it the other day and found it quite unpalatable. Yet we wolfed it as if it were some exquisite delicacy. At least it probably contained plenty of fibre — or roughage as we called it in those days.
Drama critic and writer Bernard Levin wouldn’t have wanted to be part of our gang. He once wrote that he never ate a banana until he had pulled off every millimetre of thread clinging to it because he thought horrible consequences would follow if he ate even the smallest piece.
Although Spain has had a banana connection for centuries through the Canary Islands, the fruit hasn’t been able to find much of a niche in Spanish regional cooking. The few recipes Spaniards use usually have a Caribbean influence and one is even called arroz a la cubana — although it’s a dish you’ll never find in Cuba. It was probably first made by Spaniards who had emigrated to Cuba and had later returned to Spain. Cuba was a Spanish colony until 1898.
Up until about the mid-1960s, arroz a la cubana was very popular in Majorca and it was on the menu of most local restaurants. But it went out of fashion and today I never see it.
However, I know three Majorcan families who still make arroz a la cubana on a regular basis. And a bachelor friend, who is a bit of a duffer in the kitchen, learned to make a good version that became his flagship dish — and only one: if you went to his place for lunch or dinner you always got arroz a la cubana.
It’s actually a most pleasant dish and I always enjoy it. It’s also easy to do at home, but try to keep it for a maximum of four as the eggs have to be fried one at a time and at the last minute.
Arroz a la cubana
Arroz a la cubana is made with long grain rice cooked al dente, a well-flavoured tomato sauce, two fried eggs and one fried banana (or more) per person.
Sauté the al dente cold rice in a big frying pan with three crushed unpeeled garlic cloves in four tablespoons of olive oil. Sauté the bananas separately in a little butter, either whole, cut into three or four pieces or sliced in two lengthways. Fry the eggs separately in butter or olive oil.
To serve: put some rice in the centre of a plate, spoon over hot tomato sauce, top with the fried eggs and place the pieces of banana round the sides.
Although I learned how to make this dish within six weeks of arriving in Majorca, I have seen the recipe only once in a cookbook. That was in the monumental publication of the late Candido whose restaurant in Segovia is famous for its roast cochinillo (suckling pig).
Candido served it in a spectacular way, putting the fried rice into a large paella pan, then arranging the fried eggs, tomato sauce and the bananas in an attractive pattern.
Serving arroz a la cubana on a big round platter instead of individual plates makes for a stunning presentation, but you must work quickly and everything must be very hot. The eggs are fried at the last possible minute when the other ingredients are on the platter.
The success of this dish depends on the rice being cooked al dente so the grains will be separate when they are fried. It also calls for plenty of tasty tomato sauce. An ideal one can be made with peeled fresh tomatoes and chopped onions sautéed in olive oil with herbs of your choice and blitzed in a blender for extra silkiness.
Plàtans a la catalana
The Spanish banana dessert that beats all others is one called plàtans a la catalana. That name makes it sound like a purebred dish from Catalonia, but it is obviously imported from the Caribbean.
For six people you will need: 12 ripe but firm bananas, 100grs hazelnuts, 50grs sugar, 100mls brandy, ground cinnamon, some butter.
Buy bananas that are straight and not too big. With the point of a sharp knife, make two incisions along the length of the banana, about 2cms apart. Cut out this piece of skin with scissors and discard. Then extract the banana flesh without breaking the skin as it serves as a container for the finished dessert.
Cut the bananas into slices about the thickness of a €1 coin, and put them into a bowl. Add the sugar, the roughly crushed hazelnuts and the brandy. Sprinkle on ground cinnamon to taste and macerate for at least an hour, stirring from time to time.
Drain the banana slices and nuts and carefully pack them into the empty skins. Grease an oven-proof dish with butter and arrange the stuffed bananas on it. Put the dish into a preheated hot oven for 15 minutes.
When the stuffed bananas come out of the oven, flambé them with the maceration liquid and some extra brandy. For maximum effect, do this at the table and serve as soon as the flames die down.
Budín de plátanos y manzanas
A Cantabrian dish called budín de plátanos y manzanas is simple to make and looks good on the plate. The base of a rectangular mould is covered with caramelised sugar. When the sugar is cold the base is covered with a layer of thin banana slices cut on the diagonal.
On top goes a layer of puréed apples to which has been added a couple of tablespoons of Cointreau or other liqueur of your choice. The mould is filled with a thick custard made with your usual recipe.
The mould is transferred to a bain marie and baked in a medium hot oven for 40-50 minutes. When the budín cools down, the mould should be upturned on a serving dish to get maximum visual impact from the sliced banana base. But depending on the custard you gave made (it should be as solid a crème caramel) that may not be possible. It can also be served by extracting rectangular sections from the mould and upturning them on to individual plates.
As can be seen from these two desserts, bananas are good with alcohol and nuts. Rum, white or dark, is especially suitable.
The simplest dessert I know that combines bananas and nuts is that old Majorcan favourite, plátano con almendras. It consists of an unpeeled banana and a handful of roasted almonds with their skins on.
In the 60s and 70s it was on the menu of just about every restaurant on the island. Now people seem to prefer factory-made ice cream cakes and tarts. Although no work is involved in putting this dessert on the table, few places serve it nowadays. When I come across it I always order it for old time’s sake. The only place I know of that always has it on the menu is Celler Can Lau in Inca.
I am not a dessert eater or maker and my repertoire consists of only four. The best dessert I ever made — and the most popular — combines bananas, dates and cream and is from Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food, one of the best cookbooks I have ever read.
The dessert is sheer simplicity. You will need six bananas, 300grs stoned dates, fresh or dried, 300mls single cream. Arrange alternate layers of thinly sliced bananas and roughly chopped dates in a serving bowl. Pour cream all over and chill for several hours. The cream soaks into the fruit and gives it a soft slightly sticky texture. Even leftovers are superb next day. A dessert you mustn’t miss — and so easy.
Some experts say the banana tree was one of the first plants to be domesticated — thousands and thousands of years ago in South-East Asia.
The botanical name for banana is Musa sapientum and for plantain it is Musa paradisiaca. There are several theories about the origin of these names. The ‘musa’ part, some say, comes from the Arabic word ‘mouz’, which means banana.
Others say the word honours the Muses. But some claim the word comes from Antonius Musa, the doctor of Augustus, the first Roman emperor who lived from 63bc to 14ad.
The ‘sapientum’ part of the name is thought to have come from Pliny, the Roman historian — ‘sapientia’ is Latin for wisdom. Pliny recorded that Alexander the Great ate bananas on an expedition in India. He wrote that the ancient sages of India — ‘sapientes Indorum’ — lived on them.
You can also take your pick when it comes to the origin of Musa paradisiaca. Some experts take this name back to the Arabs, who claimed that the banana was the Tree of Paradise — the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Many Europeans, including Pliny, first called bananas figs — which only adds to the Garden of Eden confusion. Before the French took to calling a banana a ‘banane’, they used the term ‘figue d’Adam’ and ‘figue de Paradis’. And in Italy a banana went under the name of ‘fico d’Adamo’.
In the Hindu religion there is also a legend that says the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was the banana. Paradise, according to the Hindus, was the island of Ceylon, or Sri Lanka , as it is now called. The same legend says, of course, it was banana leaves that Adam and Eve used to cover their nakedness.
There are some experts who claim the gigantic bunches of grapes which Moses received from the Promised Land were, in fact, enormous bunches of bananas. A bunch of bananas, or ‘hands’ as they are called, can contain up to 200 bananas and weigh over 80 pounds.
Bananas are one of the most useful and important fruits. They are available all year round and have a high nutritional value. A banana contains more vitamin C than an apple — a banana a day gives us a fifth of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C.
The amount of vitamin B6 in a banana is comparable to that in the same weight of liver. Little wonder the banana plays such an important part in the diet of vegetarians.
The explorer and journalist Sir Henry Morton Stanley (famous for saying “Dr Livingstone, I presume”) said during that African hunt for the missing Scot: “When there is no more wheat, barley, rice, sorghum or millet, we’ll eat bananas.” How’s that for an unsolicited testimonial?