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Thursday, 2 October 2014

Plantain

It isn't just foodies who like to browse through food stalls when travelling in foreign lands, as we are all, to some extent, attracted to the unusual. When in London, I like to look at the fresh food stalls in Lewisham, which display quite a few imported species of fruit and vegetables that we do not see in Hania, and I wonder how they are prepared and what they taste like.
Apart from the tomatos, bell peppers and avocados, everything else looked quite foreign to me. Our supermarkets stock only one kind of mango (always imported), and one type of okra (only when it's in season). Taro (κολοκάσι) is now making an appearance, but potatos,onions and garlic continue to be the only root vegetables we see in our fresh markets. Ginger is now a staple in supermarkets, but it's still only imported.  

This year, I decided to buy some plantains to take back and cook at home. I bought them in a very unripe state - they were bright green, with no black markings. At first sight, of course they look like bananas, which often confuses the uninitiated. My family couldn't believe that they could be anything else.
I bought the plantains at the same time, but they all seemed to be at different ripening stages after nearly three weeks sitting on the kitchen work bench.  
Plantains don't really look any more exciting than bananas. Plantains are always cooked (the German word for plantain is Kochbanane - 'cooking banana', which expresses it succinctly), unlike bananas which are eaten raw, even in their unripe state. But even bananas were once an exotic species for Crete/Greece, and they haven't even been around for a century here:
In the early 20s, a monk from the area, returning from the Holy Land, brought with him a few banana plants and planted them in the Monastery of St. Antoniou of Arvi (in Iraklio, Crete). When the plants fruited, nobody tasted them despite their nice fragrance, since they knew nothing about them. But a few plants were planted in gardens and fields as ornamentals. A few years later a doctor who was in the area and knew the fruit, not only tried it before the astonished inhabitants, but bought a bunch of bananas. In the early 30s the first crops were a fact. Bananas, grown in sacks with straw or paper, were transported by animals to Viannos, and from there by truck to Iraklio and then by ferry to Athens. The Cretans were still not eating them. Ten years later the banana cultivation started in Malia, on the north coast of Crete. At that time the price was 25 drachmas per oka (old measuring system) in the winter which fell to 5 drachmas in the summer. At the same time the price of olive oil did not exceed 7 drachmas per oka. In the early 50s the Cretans 'discovered' banana as a fruit and began placing the product on the markets of the island. Demand is great, but is not covered by production. In the late 50s, banana imports began during the winter from African countries and South America. (For more information, click on this link.)
Bananas only became a common commodity in the Greek market after entry into the EU. Before that, they were considered exotic and expensive. When I was teaching in Athens in the early 1990s, a student recounted this story to me: her parents had been to London to visit friends, where they purchased a large bag full of bananas which they took on the plane back to Athens. At the airport, they took a taxi to take them home, where they unloaded their suitcases and bags - but the driver didn't see the bananas on the ground and he squashed them with the wheel by accident, much to the dismay of my friend's parents, who had transported them to Greece like precious cargo!


My plantain dishes, all cooked with our own olive oil.

After nearly 3 weeks of having the plantains sitting on my kitchen bench, I decided that the time had come to try cooking them. My recipes come straight from the internet, my first source for anything I don't know. Apparently, you can eat them both as a savoury and a sweet. The green ones are better as a savoury, while the riper ones are better as a sweet. I chose to use one less ripened plantain to make tostones which are very popular in the Americas, eaten with rice and beans, and a simple sweet plantain dish with the most ripened plantain, similar to the fried banana dessert in Asian restaurants.

My family's reaction to the plantain recipes was as could be expected of people eating unusual food for the first time. They said that it wasn't the most exciting thing that they had ever tasted. Perhaps it's true that plantains aren't the most exciting food species around. But they are forgetting something. I told them to imagine that this was a common meal in their home, like it is for many other people around the world, and also to imagine that the plantain is all they may have had to cook with. I know that they enjoyed the meal much more than they would have, had we not had this little talk.
The last plantain was eaten last night, and I can tell you that it brought back memories of our recent trip to London, knowing that there won't be any more plantains to eat for quite a while...

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