The first time I ate a plantain was when I lived in Brixton, London, five minutes’ walk away from Electric Avenue market. I had bought a large banana, but it didn’t want to peel properly, and it was a weird shade of yellow inside, and it tasted unripe and made my tongue feel funny even though it was a deep yellow on the outside. I had wondered for a while why so many market vendors in Brixton sold giant mouldy black bananas, but never really investigated. Of course, I now know that I had actually bought a plantain, the banana’s starchier cousin. Unfortunately I realised this after I had already subjected my friend Harriet to the same ‘banana’ eating experience.
These days, I am a plantain and banana expert – I even work in the so-called “banana belt” villages of Belize (helping the local teachers get trained). Thanks to Ray’s dad Mario, I know how to cook green bananas (you grate them and make them into burger shaped savoury “banana fritters” to eat with fish), yellow bananas (ok so they’re still best eaten straight out of their skin, but taste oh so much better when they’ve ripened on the tree!); over-ripe black-skinned plantain (chopped into slices lengthways and fried into unhealthy deliciousness); ripe plantain mixed with green plantain (boiled then pounded into submission ready to eat with hudut, a delicious Garifuna fish and coconut stew) and everything in between. When I say I know how to cook all these things, I mean I watch Mario do it regularly – I leave all the actual cooking up to him!
I know that to grow a banana or plantain tree you just get a piece of banana tree stalk, stick it in the ground, and you’ll have bananas less then a year later. I know that good banana cultivation requires the merciless hacking down of all runt banana trees that sprout out of the bottom of the mother banana tree, leaving only the strongest daughter to rule once the mother has borne her bananas and is also mercilessly slaughtered.
Yes I now have utmost respect for the humble banana family – and next time you see a Fyffes Belize banana at your local supermarket in the UK or Ireland, just think, I might have driven past that banana while it was still on its tree while visiting a school in a Mayan village just a few weeks previously.