I'd always thought that bananas grew on trees. They don't. They grow
on tall herbs. I made this astonishing discovery more than a decade
ago, while on a tour of a banana plantation in Western Australia. The
banana plant is mostly water, held together with a bit of greenery. It
grows rapidly, produces one enormous purple flower, which, when
pollinated produces one very large bunch of bananas, then the plant
dies. A new plant starts up from its roots almost immediately.
In addition to being the world's biggest herb, the banana as we know
it is a hybrid—a cross of two wild species that are still eaten
in Africa today. In the wild, bananas are full of seeds and not
terribly appetizing. That's why it seems likely that the banana was
cultivated (rather than simply found wild) relatively early. There are
records that it was being consumed in the Indus valley more than 4,000
years ago, but those records do not give any hint as to whether
cultivation had set in at that point.
Though we have documentation of the existence and consumption of
bananas from an early date, most of it was in reports made by people
who simply saw the fruit—such as Alexander the Great and his
soldiers, when they invaded India—or who possibly even sampled it
while traveling. However, because it is highly perishable and difficult
to transport, the banana made its way around the world at a snail's
pace. Pliny described the fruit, but never saw it, and bananas never
appear to have reached Greece or Rome.
Arabs may have cultivated bananas in North Africa, but the primary
evidence of this is that the Koran identifies the fruit consumed by
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as being a banana. (And banana
leaves, which run up to twelve feet in length, would be far more
effective than fig leaves for covering yourself up.) It is likely,
however, that the banana came to Africa before the Arabs brought it in,
carried by Indonesian invaders who overran Madagascar early in the
While the first bananas were planted in the Americas in 1516, when
Friar Tomás de Berlanga got them started on the island of
Hispaniola, they were not widely or consistently available in North
America or Europe until after World War I. The reason that is
particularly surprising is that, today, it is the most popular fruit in
the U.S., with the average American consuming about 25 pounds a year.
But that is not to say that the banana wasn't growing in popularity
even before it was widely available.
The banana (in its approximately 400 variations, including the
plantain) is one of the only staple foods of the world that is not a
root or a grain. It is grown in virtually all tropical countries, but
is exported chiefly by Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras,
and Guatemala—the so called "Banana Republics." (In fact, when I
was in Ecuador, I learned that most of Quito's taxi cabs were purchased
from Russia in exchange for a vastly large quantity of bananas, at a
time when Russia needed food more than cars.) The only European country
that grows bananas, oddly enough, is Iceland, where they are planted in
soil heated by geysers.
Unlike the sweet bananas we consume as fruit, the plantain is
generally treated as a vegetable. It is starchier, less sweet, and
needs to be cooked. It can often be found prepared as fritters,
battered and deep fried. I like to just slice them and sauté
them in a little peanut oil, until golden and just getting brown at the
edges, then sprinkle them with salt. Plantains appear in various
tropical cuisines as snacks or side dishes, fried, mashed, or baked. In
some places, they take the place of the potato.
This beef and plantain stew comes from East Africa. It is a delicious,
substantial, filling dish. Though it sounds exotic, it actually borders
on being comfort food. If you don't tell people that there are
plantains in it, they'll probably be hard pressed to determine what it
is that gives this dish that certain je ne sais quoi that makes
it more fun than just another bowl of meat and potatoes.
Mtori (Beef and Plantain Stew)
3 pounds beef short ribs
2 teaspoons salt
3 ripe plantains (about 1½ pounds), peeled and sliced into
rounds ¼ inch thick
3 medium-sized new (red skinned) potatoes
2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 Tbs. butter
Peel and quarter the potatoes, then put them in a
bowl of cold water to prevent discoloration.
Put the short ribs, 1 quart cold water, and salt in a 3- to 4-quart
stew pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim the foam and scum as
they rise to the surface. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, partially
covered, for 1‑½ hours.
Add the plantains, drained potatoes, and onions, and continue
simmering for another 30 minutes, or until the meat is tender and the
potatoes can be mashed easily with a fork.
Remove the short ribs from the pot. Remove the meat from the bones
and cut away the fat and gristle, and discard. Cut the meat into
Purée the soup and vegetables in a food processor or blender.
(You will probably need to do this in batches, and you may need to add
a little water, if the purée gets too thick.) Return the
purée to the pot, add the meat, and stir in the butter. Heat
through. Taste for seasoning. Enjoy.
Short ribs are pretty distinctive, so you wouldn't
want to get rid of them completely, but if you're worried about fat,
you could substitute a bit of chuck pot roast for part of the
meat—say, one pound of chuck to 2 pounds of short ribs. It makes
this a little less rich, but doesn't sacrifice taste.
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