Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Plantains

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

[above: plantain; below: banana]

Plantains are very often confused with bananas. Some people (ahem) will buy one thinking it's a banana and then think "why the hell is the skin so fucking tough?" and then take a big bite only to find it's terribly unsweet and tastes like a creamy potato. Well, that would be because I (I mean "people") have bitten into a plantain, not a banana. That banana is technically called a "dessert banana."


Conversely, the plantain is considerably less sweet than its cousin, the dessert banana. It's often bigger than a dessert banana (see picture above) and its skin is a lot thicker. Dessert bananas when ripe are very easily peeled; plantains even when very ripe still need a knife to help the peeling process along. There are more key differences: dessert bananas are tastier the riper they get; plantains can be eaten very underripe or very overly ripe. Two common dishes are tostones (aka patacones or "plantain chips") which utilize the underripe green plantain and fry pieces into golden "chips" while the riper yellow plantain will yield wonderfully sweet dessert banana-type flavors that go excellently with caramel and sugars.

Plantains are found throughout the tropical regions in the world, including Hawaii, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and parts of Southern Asia and Africa and are a central food in their various cuisines. Plantains can be boiled, fried, grilled, baked, or even steamed. The consensus is that raw plantain (unlike it's dessert banana cousin) is not particularly pleasant when eaten raw. The versatility of the plant also makes for wonderful dishes ranging in taste and texture. When the plantain is underripe, it has a wonderfully meaty texture and starchy flavor that makes it perfect for frying or to be put in soups. When ripe, the sugars become more concentrated and yields beautiful caramelization that makes the dessert banana jealous in a dish like Bananas Foster. Simply grilled ripe plantains are wonderfully creamy and sweet, and an unexpected side dish to savory grilled meats seasoned with spicy adobo and other spices. Ripe grilled plantains can be cut into small pieces and added to rice dishes. They can even be boiled and combined with water and sugar to make an alcoholic drink called chapo juice.

Even the flowers and leaves of the plantain plant are utilized. The flowers and buds are used for salads and dry curries while the leaves when steamed offer an amazing flavor to tamales and rice dishes.

So next time you pass by your bananas in the market, you might want to pick up a plantain or two. Tostones are a great appetizer and alternative to the french fry for dishes, especially if you're going the grill route for dinner. Check out a recipe here for a basic fry technique using plantains.

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