Reinventing The Banana

14th January 2018

My mother was a toddler when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and still under ten years old when Hitler took to his bunker and failed to re-emerge, in 1945.

Childhood memories of WWII are relatively dewy in Ireland, lacking the chaos, drama and trauma experienced by many other young Europeans. ‘The Emergency’ for Irish children was defined by scares and scarcities rather than by mayhem, evacuations and so much worse.

Years ago, my Mum recounted to me that, by dint of her being so young, the thing she remembers most about the war was that there were no bananas.

This must have struck a chord with me, as ever since I have elevated the banana to a fruit worthy of veneration. Apples and pears are all very well, but pedestrian; bananas are blessed and blissful.

This may explain why, when my rickshaw driver pedalled past the fruit and veg wholesale markets in the south Indian city of Madurai, I cried halt, with a mixture of urgency and eagerness.

‘Can we stop here for 5 minutes?, I pleaded. I had spied a lane of interest. The answer was, of course, a beaming ‘yes’. I find that in India almost anything is possible and mostly nothing is a hassle. The Indian disposition is suited to spontaneity as it lacks the frayed stress which is the implicit currency of the West.

I stepped off my rickshaw into the balmy afternoon heat and entered a shaded laneway, packed with dozens of vendors standing behind dozens of stalls, each selling bananas and only bananas.

It was in a mellowy, yellowy heaven.

India is the world’s largest producer of bananas and the fruit, over millennia, has become deeply engrained in its culture. Lord Ganesha, the beloved foodie god of Hindus, is never far from her beloved bananas. In the South, people will grow a banana tree at their front door as a symbol of fertility – because it bears fruit throughout the seasons and is so easily replanted. Banana leaves are used as a preferred base on which to serve food.

In Chennai, for example, I sat with my guide, Dana, and her family, to eat the lunch she and her husband had just prepared. Following their cue and custom, I ate the whole meal using the fingers of my right hand only, while seated on the floor. Each of us had our food beautifully spread out on a freshly washed banana leaf. It transpires that the properties of the banana leaf imbue food with added antioxidants, and the leaf’s waxy exterior enriches food with just a little more flavour. (Science catches up and substantiates cultural wisdom, eventually.)

The global story of the banana is a salutary tale of tropical diversity becoming the victim of Western ambition. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the American industrial complex has tried to figure out how this perishable imported fruit might become an affordable mainstay of modern homes.

The biggest obstacles faced were consistency of taste and economies of scale. They sought a disease-free variety that might balance efficiency and consumer benefits.

For the first half of the 20th century they focused on a variety known as Gros Michel, and then switched out in favour of a variety known as Cavendish when the former succumbed to disease. Consumers were thus ‘educated’ to expect only one variety of banana, not because absence of choice was their explicit desire but rather because this was an optimal solution for the banana titans.

This reminds me of the narrow choices in the world of beer, in the days before the dawn of Craft.

A measure of the success of the homogenised banana industry can be seen in its political impact. In 1904, The Economist published a story of a fictional land called Anchuria, the agrarian economy of which was fully hijacked for banana production, satirically named a ‘Banana Republic’. The story was a veiled reference to Honduras, a country established on a similar premise. Other Central American states would follow.

When the Indians I met talk about bananas today, the big theme is their interest in returning to the real flavours of the banana and a rejection of the bland, homogenous, yellow Cavendish.

This golden variety with a satisfying curve and length continues to deliver banana dreams to most homes around the globe. But in India, it may be the most prevalent but it is also the least respected of banana varieties.

As I walked through Banana Lane in Madurai, a dankness filled the air, and the aromas of bananas wafted and mingled in the afternoon humidity. Once my eyes acclimatised, I began to detect something of a crescent-shaped renaissance.

This range of banana produce had moved beyond yellow and beyond crescent shape. Green, red, orange, black, bulbous, stubby… The colour and shape of the banana rainbow seemed to be expanding. The red banana took my fancy with overtones of earthiness with notes of mango; or this stubby fingerling variety, with its complex dual taste – sweet on the outside and tart in the middle. Yum yum. It was such a breath of fresh air in this Urheimat of the banana.

Perhaps the whole world has been suffering from a kind of wartime banana shortage after all. Perhaps the industrial complex has been raining all over the banana’s fabulous for way too long.

But the times, they are a-changing. In the banana lanes of Madurai, the war is deliciously over.

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