(Updated 11/26/16: fixed broken links)
As a child, I hated bananas. They were always around the house — my sister and brother loved them — and I liked banana bread, but their gluey texture and cloying sweetness repelled me.
Nonetheless, when I went to Asia a few months ago, bananas were one of my food priorities.
What changed my mind? Dan Koeppel and his book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. Months before my trip, I heard Koeppel speak about the history and biology of bananas on various radio programs (Fresh Air, On Point Radio, Good Food) and learned the amazing story of this ubiquitous fruit.
One of the incredible facts about bananas is that most people in the industrialized world eat the exact same banana: the Cavendish. And because of the banana’s method of asexual reproduction, we’re not just eating the same variety, but essentially identical copies because all Cavendish bananas have the exact same DNA.
Today’s Banana is the Cavendish, Yesterday’s was the Gros Michel
The Cavendish is “the banana” because it possesses traits that make it economically viable: it can be picked green, is relatively tough, has a suitably thick skin, and its ripening behavior is compatible with long-distance shipping and warehousing. And it tastes pretty good. The Cavendish is actually a fairly recent arrival, as it is the replacement for the original banana, which was a variety called Gros Michel. This variety was the main banana from the first days of the transcontinental trade (which revolutionized the fruit industry) until it was struck down by a disease in the mid 20th century.
In his radio interviews, Koeppel explained that there are hundreds of varieties of edible bananas around the world, but most of them can’t travel very far — some ripen too fast, others have thin skins, and so on.
Since I was headed to the tropics, I chose Koeppel’s banana book as part of my airplane/airport reading. In an early chapters, he provides a short explanation of banana genetics. Banana cultivars contain combinations of A and B genes. Wild bananas — bananas that have not been altered by human-induced breeding — are AA. AB and those with three genes are usually result of hybridization. For example, the Cavendish is AAA and plantains are AAB. (Koeppel doesn’t say if there are any BB bananas. I imagine that he would have mentioned them if they existed.)
In that same chapter, Koeppel talks about a trip to the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, where he views the “Musalogue”, a book that lists all of the known varieties of banana (the name Musalogue refers to the banana’s genus, Musa). Of the 172 listed in the book, there are 12 wild bananas (those with the AA gene combination). Nine of them are natives of New Guinea, one is from the Philippines, one is of unknown origin, and one is from Malaysia.
Since I was going to be right next to Malaysia, the Malaysian wild banana caught my attention. Perhaps I could find them and ‘eat on the wild side.’
‘Wild’ Bananas in Malaysia
The wild Malaysian banana is known as “pisang mas” in Malay, which has the unexciting translation of “golden banana” (pisang = banana, mas = golden). We didn’t have to look too hard to find the pisang mas in Singapore. The first fruit vendor in Little India knew which variety we were referring to and happily sold us a bunch.
They are relatively small, about half the size of Cavendish, with much thinner skin. The thin skin makes them a little hard to peel (and is probably one reason they don’t travel very far). I can’t speak about their flavor relative to ‘normal’ bananas, but I can say that I thought they tasted good and the texture didn’t bother me.
Another exciting banana-related discovery was a dish called Spicy Yogurt-Banana Pachadi in Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Mangoes and Curry Leaves (page 70). A raita-like creation from South India, this sweet, spicy, and sour condiment was the highlight of an all Alford/Duguid meal that we cooked together one night. If you have the book, give it a try sometime.
Since returning home, I have learned that the wild pisang mas bananas are being cultivated in Latin America and sold in the U.S. At one time (but not in 11/2016), Dan Koeppel’s blog had a post about the new types of small bananas that are available in the U.S. These are varieties that are naturally small, not small versions of the Cavendish. One of the offerings from Chiquita is the “Mini,” which is grown in Latin America and turns out to be the ‘wild’ pisang mas variety.
(See also this post I wrote at The Ethicurean about a piece by Dan Koeppel in the New York Times.)