I once visited a friend and found a giant bunch of what I thought were bananas on her back patio. I learned they were actually plantains. A Filipino friend had given them to her from his own garden. She was keen to give some away as she had way too many and unsure what to do with them. Well, I love a food challenge and can’t bear to let food go to waste so I gratefully accepted her offer and snapped off a dozen or so from the bunch and let the World Wide Web guide me on a journey of discovery.
Plantains are also known as cooking bananas and are starchy rather than sweet. As the name suggests they are always eaten cooked. They can be eaten ripe or unripe (green) and the starchy unripe form has a neutral flavour similar to potato. They are a major staple in central and West Africa, the Caribbean, Central America and the northern parts of South America, and indigenous to tropical South East Asia. They provide a surprising 25% of the carbohydrate requirements of 70 million people in Africa alone. They are a useful food crop because they bear fruit all year.
In Africa, plantains are usually fried or roasted, while in the Caribbean they are boiled and mashed. In Central and South America plantains can be boiled and mashed, or made into chips, patties or dumplings and fried. In these cuisines, plantains provide a neutral palette on which to add flavoursome savoury dishes. In India, Indonesia and the Philippines they tend more to the sweeter side of things, such as steamed plantain and coconut cake, or simply fried and sprinkled with sugar or syrup. Plantains can also be dried and ground into flour.
Nutritionally, plantains are around one fifth carbohydrate, of which around half is starch and half is sugars. They are very low in protein and fat and a source of fibre. They also provide useful amounts of vitamin A, C, B6 and potassium. The glycemic index of plantain varies according to the cultivar, how ripe it is and how it is prepared. Unripe, green plantain is generally low GI but some cultivars can be medium or even high when boiled.
You might wonder what I did with my plantains. I went savoury with a Cayeye and Cabeza de Gato (Colombian mashed green plantain) and then sweet with Caramelised Plantains. If you’re not lucky enough to have a neighbour growing them to share, you can find them in greengrocers and markets, especially in places where immigrants who traditionally eat them live.
Source: USDA, 2020
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, author, consultant, cook and food enthusiast who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious.
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