Ten years ago, when I was newly married, I stopped at a roadside fruit stall in the town of Nagercoil, South India, near my in-laws’ house. , to collect bananas for a religious ceremony. I looked at the clusters of this nutraceutical fruit, ranging from the usual shades of yellow to various hues of red and purple. They were hung from hooks on the tin roof of the stand as if they were precious possessions.
There were 12 to 15 varieties, each with a distinct name and purpose
Each bouquet was labeled with a local variety name – poovan, Chevvazhai, Matti Pazzham etc. I had never seen such a multitude of varieties of bananas in all my years in Hyderabad, the capital of the Indian state of Telangana, about 1,200 km north of Nagercoil. I just knew the modest banana as aratipandu in the Telugu language (and vaazhaipazham in Tamil and kela in Hindi). But here in Nagercoil, there were 12 to 15 varieties, each with a distinct name and purpose. Suddenly, life seemed easier to me before marriage, when I had indoctrinated myself in banana country.
Bananas have been India’s most versatile and revered fruit since time immemorial. Because of its nativity, enduring abundance, and affordable price, it is the must-have fruit for almost any occasion, and the banana tree in its entirety is deeply embedded in the country’s cultural fabric. While the native varieties are grown in home gardens across India, they grow abundantly both in the country and in the wild in places like Nagercoil, largely due to the hot and humid tropical climate and fertile and loamy soil conditions found in areas adjacent to the Western Ghats of southern India.
The banana is considered one of the earliest and most cultivated fruits in the world and has traveled far from its humble origins in India and Southeast Asia. Today, it is one of the most consumed fruits in the world, and even in these times of a pandemic, comforting and easy-to-make banana bread is all the rage in Google searches across the world.
Historical documents mention that Alexander the Great was impressed with the exotic taste of kadali phalam (the Sanskrit name for the banana) and transported the fruit from India to the Middle East, where it was renamed banana (an Arabic word for finger) by Arab traders. It then reached Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean in the 15th century, then moved north to Bermuda. From Bermuda, bananas were shipped to England as novelty fruit during the 17th and 18th centuries. And in 1835 Joseph Paxton, head gardener at Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire, cultivated and grew a new yellow variety and named it musa cavendishii, after his employer’s last name, William Cavendish.
Bananas are considered a remedy for all ailments, physical and spiritual
Despite its relatively small size and somewhat bland taste compared to other varieties, the uniformity, disease resistance and high yielding ability of Cavendish made it the darling variety of the Western world. In India, the high-yielding variety G9 Cavendish (from Israel) is now produced commercially throughout the country; however, native varieties of banana – and their plantain cousins - are still cultivated, mainly in the southernmost parts of India. Locals often sing in praise of varieties like poovan, mondan and peyan (named after the Hindu holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively) for their versatility, flavor, and texture.
You might also be interested in:
• Dosa: the obsession with healthy fast food in India
• What is “real” Indian cuisine?
• Original turmeric latte from India
In India, the banana is considered as a remedy for all ailments, physical and spiritual. As a child, the viscous and soft texture of ripe fruit had never seduced me. Still, I remember swallowing banana pieces as my mother begged me to eat them as an immune booster after an episode of jaundice, and my grandmother coaxed me by devouring them like a prasadam (divine offering) after religious ceremonies.
Today, bananas are widely believed to have many health benefits – a ripe banana is loaded with potassium, calcium, vitamin B6, and vitamin C, and is a rich source of carbohydrates and fiber. However, in India they have been enjoyed medicinally for thousands of years. The banana tree is considered sacred and every part of it is used, whether it is the fruit to eat or the leaf, flower and rind in medicinal treatments.
“A ripe banana is vata predominant [having the life force elements of ether and air] and is used in the treatment of several skin disorders in Ayurveda, ”said Dr Sreelakshmi, senior Ayurvedic consultant at Naad Wellness in Delhi.
Additionally, in Ayurveda, the banana flower and stem are used to treat diabetes, and the sap of the tree (which has astringent properties) is used for ailments such as leprosy and epilepsy as well. than for insect bites. And as Sreelakshmi explains, psychosomatic disorders such as hypertension and insomnia are treated with a therapy called thalapothichil in which the head is covered with a medicinal paste and then wrapped in a banana leaf, which is believed to have a calming effect.
The banana has the status of a tree although it is technically an herb that produces berries (botanically speaking) generally referred to as fruits.
The banana is also the only fruit mentioned in the Pali canon (central scriptures in the Theravada school of Buddhism), the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita, and forms the fruit triad, along with the mango and the jackfruit, called mukkani in Tamil Sangam literature. In Hinduism, the banana tree is equated with Lord Brihaspati (Jupiter), who is considered a guru of the Hindu pantheon.
The banana tree is also associated with fertility and generosity. So, in southern India, a pair of banana trees with flowering branches is placed on either side of the entrance to a house. or held at weddings, religious festivals and other special occasions. In Bengal, during the Durga Pujo festival, a figurine symbolizing Goddess Durga (the Hindu goddess of war and female energy) is made with a banana tree, draped in a yellow sari with a red border. This form of the goddess is known as Kola Bou, where kola means “banana” and bou means “lady” in Bengali.
When it comes to eating bananas in India, there are many options, whether ripe or raw, to choose from. Varieties like matti pazzham, easily digestible, are used as baby food, while others like nendran and rasthali, due to their longer shelf life and lower water content, are used in traditional and contemporary Indian dishes.
“We call the banana” kele “in Konkani [a language spoken in the Konkan region along the Western Ghats], and it’s a staple in our traditional Konkani cuisine, ”said Shantala Nayak Shenoy, who writes a food blog called The Love of Spice. “I often like to prepare kele upkari [a mildly flavoured raw banana stir fry] and Kele Koddel [a spicy coconut-based curry] to use delicious ripe bananas to crisp kele phodi [gram flour battered fritters] and kele halvo [a sweet treat using ripe bananas and semolina]. There is a way to satisfy most palates and taste buds with a banana.
According to Associate Chef Vignesh Ramachandran of Once Upon a Time Restaurant in Hyderabad, “We use slices of raw marinated and grilled bananas instead of fish. saiva meen kuzhambu, a vegetarian interpretation of meen kuzhambu [fish curry] dish. This raw banana floats in the curry and mimics a fish like in the original dish.
Just when I thought I knew all the uses for bananas in India, I met Sekar C, a weaver from Anakaputhur on the outskirts of Chennai who makes eco-friendly sarees from banana waste and banana fiber. natural. He leads a team of a hundred women, who for years have been weaving a mixture of cotton saris and banana fiber.
Raw or ripened, fruit or flower, Cavendish or poovan, Indians are spoiled for choice when it comes to the humble and versatile banana. And the more we explore this country where it is considered sacred, the more surprises it throws.
Back in Nagercoil, the land of bananas, I no longer look, but I confidently choose the Rasakadali or matti pazham, which are considered auspicious, for religious purposes. I also often buy delicious nendran chips by the kilo to eat as a snack. Each bite tells the story of this city and its banana heritage.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly newsletter of bbc.com features called “The Essentia List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.