Kalpavriksha: Celebrate the Banana Republic
With its amazing variety of delicious use, the banana and its tree are a multi-treat for the connoisseur. As summer arrives, it's time for a banana revolution
Ratna Raman Delhi
When we were children, we made the annual hometown trip to Madras and Chidambaram, the residence of both maternal and paternal grandparents, and travelled what seemed interminably long distances by trains, packed in third-class compartments. Five of us, three hungry children and two worn out adults in the undulating heat, sought refuge by reading Enid Blytons bought off the Monday market streetside vendors on Bank Street and devouring vast quantities of homemade food.
First, we demolished quantities of 'poori aloo', which would otherwise go bad, the aloo having even less resistance than any of us to the onslaught of hot weather once it had been cooked. Other meal times were garnished with tamarind rice, curd rice, rice vadaams and sago vadaams that came out of large blue 'Sway' tins that were carted especially for the occasion. When we started our journey, replete with tiffin carrier, real plastic plates and tumblers and drinking water, we also carried a large bunch of bananas.
In fact, we knew our destination by a fruit map. Southward bound journeys were marked by the arrival of loose jacket oranges or guavas at Nagpur, when almost half the journey was over. The arrival of sapotas (which Octavio Paz declares is a Mexican import to India or cheekus, as they are referred to, in North India) on the borders of Andhra Pradesh, brought to us the certain knowledge that we were but a few hours from Madras.
One halt at Andhra Pradesh remains forever etched in my mind. As our train pulled in slowly, on the parallel track was a stationary goods train and from its bogeys men were unloading reed baskets of humongous mangoes. A porter had dropped a basket, the thin woven reeds split and large mangoes rolled out everywhere. As he scrambled to collect them and put them back, he looked up and saw us, three grubby heat-shrunk kids, looking wistfully out of the window. Before any of us knew it, my brother held the fruit in cupped hands and as we looked up to thank the porter, awed and dazed by the unexpected gift, the train had begun to pick up momentum.
At the scheduled stop wiry men and young boys got on to the train with baskets of sapotas and we stocked up on the fruit for all our relatives, storing them in the multipurpose plastic buckets that had assisted us in bathing earlier on in the journey. Armed with fruitful gifts we reached Madras and then sometimes boarded yet another train to Chidambaram, finally concluding our journey at Vilangi Amman Koil Street via bullock cart.
The rest of the vacations we gorged on mangoes and jackfruit and the sapotas, but the most memorable of all our fruit journeys was in the veritable feast of bananas that the south of India spread out for us.
There were the poovampayams, finger length bananas, that could be eaten entirely in one succulent mouthful. Then there were larger rustali, about one-and-a-half mouthfuls, the sevvayai, red plantain, hardy and tempered, the pachaladampayam, green in colour and rather like those we found in Delhi, the malapayam or the mountain fruit, seen as the healthiest banana of all. Then the undampayam, that could be used both as a vegetable and was also allowed to ripen as a fruit. This was, of course, the poor cousin to the nendarampayam, the emperor of bananas that could be eaten, as we were to discover, in myriad ways.
Measuring anything between 11 to 13 inches, the fruit, when raw, was cut into yellow circular discs which were deep fried in hot oil to make crisp chips, the manufacture of which is an enormous cottage industry in all the southern states. Of late, one can even get smaller, chunky quarter sections, deep fried, which are marketed as chips with a difference. The ripe fruit is steamed and eaten, stolid and almost peachy orange in colour, with ghee or honey or both. They are also cut into chunks, fried in hot oil and then dipped into a ginger-jaggery syrup and left to dry, making for a delicious sweet, anytime snack.
Needless to say, by this time, there was available a whole medley of desserts, some homegrown, the others imported from distant shores. There were the regal sweet banana appams, gorgeous golden-brown globes deep fried in ghee, that began as temple offerings, which were also made in households on ritual occasions.
Incidentally, one must not forget to add that the gods in south India are extremely partial to bananas. Since each part of the banana tree is put to use by man, it is often celebrated as a kalpavriksha, the heavenly tree of wish-fulfillment. We could definitely co-opt it as an enduring symbol from the Vedic period evoking far happier associations, than the Biblical tree of knowledge and its much maligned apple.
Reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years Of Solitude, I have often felt that he proffers the banana as a symbol of indigenous resistance thereby marginalising the biblical and Newtonian associations of the apple. Anyway, to gravitate to my earlier point, in order to honour the gods, ripe bananas are mashed with ghee, sugar candy, raisins, and occasionally cardamom, and then placed as votive offerings. This ambrosial mash called panchamrutam is distributed among visting devotees and even bottled for those who wish to carry some home.
Everyone in Europe talks of the human nymphs who climb into large vats and stomp on choice ripe grapes to make wine, but the swarthy men who climbed into the banana mashing pits in their loincloths to pulp vast quantities of the fruit with their legs for the big temples in the south have never received any encomiums to date. If at all they were referred to, it was with embarrassment.
Pachamrutham was often made at home by thrifty, female relatives, who recycled and served up versions of panchmrutham by vigorously mashing small quantities of bordering-on-overripe-bananas, and the required garnishings, thankfully, using hands and spoons, and keeping the stuff coming every morning as prasadam at the end of morning or evening prayers. This, I must assure all young mothers, makes for the most delicious baby food which Gerber unfortunately has neither learnt to make nor market.
A simple banana and peanut butter recipe came home with an America-returned uncle who brought us a jar of peanut butter. Sliced ripe banana on bread slices slathered with peanut butter made for a quick mid-morning treat. Meanwhile, quantities of ripening bananas could also be turned into banana cakes, the recipes for which were inherited from friendly aunties, who baked on gas ovens.
Meanwhile, the ingenuous Irish had invented the Banofee, an abbreviated term for banana and toffee perhaps, but this was a gastronomical delight with biscuit crust, chocolate and thickened, condensed milk lined with banana slices and whipped cream. The inputs for this came from an aunt who had travelled to Ireland to do a course.
Then, of course, there were the ice cream parlours mushrooming in different markets in New Delhi. Here we were introduced to The All American Banana Split amidst great ceremony. The Split was a dessert which really lived up to its name. One large banana, sliced into two, over which were poised three scoops of different ice-creams, which were then anointed with splashes of strawberry or chocolate sauce. The Split left one a little confused. There were too many colours and too many flavours, all of which effectively camouflaged the taste of the banana and signalled the death-knell for the poor fruit.
Thankfully, good old Standard Restaurant next to Regal Cinema at Cannought Place in New Delhi made amends by serving a very elegant banana pie, wherein between mouthfuls of airy cream, one encountered a soulful suggestion of banana.
One must not forget that the banana is an indigenous fruit, and has been appropriated and transformed by ancient culinary cultures. To south India must go the credit of ensuring maximum mileage for bananas in raw form by creating a range of delectable savouries. Lesser raw plantains, of non-nendarampayam geneology, are turned into delicate brown banana wafers, or made into deep fried banana bhajjis, potent with besan covers.
Yet again, raw bananas could be turned into steamed banana curry or podimaas (a pepper garnished and grated version of raw banana over which one squeezed a slice of lemon), and there is no better way to initiate a sumptuous Sunday lunch or an annual shraadham than eating rice and sambhar or rice and rasam with delicious Vayakkai roast. These shallow fried chunks of raw banana, sufficiently garnished, can even put spicy fried potatoes in the shade.
The flower and stem of the banana tree are also dressed up for lunch and dinner and are prized as much as the raw fruit by connoisseurs. As an older adolescent, I discovered that there were banana koftas and kachcha kela rotis and even raw, unskinned bananas cooked in curd being consumed in homes in New Delhi.
Incidentally, households in Bengal make the finest banana flower curry and cutlets, while Punjab, with its new harvests of the banana crop, is all set to usher in the All India Banana Revolution. Ordinary banana chips are marketed in Bombay and Nashik, by Hot Chips, and others sell three kinds of banana chips under the label of Southern Delights. Believe it or not, in Chandni Chowk, the stronghold of daal wadis and kachoris, at a namkeen shop bordering the silver shops, one can find banana chips sliced full length disappearing off the trays on which they are displayed.
Many years ago, at the home of Grace Valson, I was introduced to shade dried nendarampayams, fried in ghee and served with a flourish, hot and succulent to the taste. I had never heard of such a variation of banana, and unfortunately for me, neither had anyone else. Grace confided that it was a home-made preparation, particular to the backwaters of Kerala.
Every resident of Kerala, of whom I made subsequent enquiries, wondered if the heat of the tropics had got to me. The more initiated aficionados smiled sympathetically and said, "Oh, you must mean the fritters!" At which one withdrew indignantly. I did not mean fritters, which are a sweet variation on the savoury plantain bhajji.
Maida or corn flour or rice batter mixed with chickpea flour is used to coat ripe nendarampayams which are then deep fried and voraciously consumed. Even today, these are often sold on the railway platforms all over Kerala and can be eaten, by themselves or with idiappams. Delicious distractions in themselves, they are no substitute for the dried fruit version.
This year, long after I was beginning to believe that the delicacy I was looking for was now extinct, I was introduced to two popular brands of nendarampayam chips at Coimbatore. One of them, A-One, comprises thin yellow banana chips that curl up at the toes, like several New Delhi varieties of local potato wafers.
The other marketed by 'Banaanaa Slice' is sliced, and fried to precision, uniformly flat in rank and file, rather like the Pringles brand of wafers. 'Banaanaa Slice' diversifies and offers chips in various shapes and seasonings. What caught my eye was a small packet, with two- inch-brown-stubby-finger-thick shapes that kindled dormant associations. The packet said Banana Gold and suddenly, I knew, with the instinct of a seasoned predator, that this was what I had been searching for.
Asking for a sample, I got to taste poovam payams, delicate in flavour, chewy and succulent, with a flavour of banana and a texture rather like that of figs and dates. The nendarampayam in a dehydrated state has a richer, more pronounced flavour, but the poovam payam, offers in miniature, a subtle version of a similar gastronomic experience. In these days of calorie conscious, zero preservative, natural and organic foods, it is definitely a 'resurrectionary' moment for the versatile banana.
The writer teaches English literature at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi