I have a crush on plantain bananas.
Before our stint in Gabon, I had never even heard of them, as they are not readily available in supermarkets, but my Swiss grand-mother used to make a chicken and rice dish that involved cooking chicken breast in a creamy yellow curry sauce and dotting the plate with fresh fruit slices: banana, pineapple, raisins, sometimes red currants and toasted, flaked almonds. It was called Riz Casimir and it was weirdly delicious. It was probably my first experience of sucré/salé, mixing sweet and savoury.
Plantain bananas are the type of banana that is eaten cooked, as a vegetable or starch rather than a fruit. It’s taste is not unlike uncooked potato: crunchy and raw-tasting, floury, and slightly astringent on the tongue. The way we eat bananas is influenced by our culture. As the whole EU curvature-of-the-banana showed in the 1990s, we have different views on the shape or size the “perfect” banana should have, and what degree of maturity is acceptable to us.
I learned in Gabon that plantain bananas that look yellow and spotless are, in fact, not that good to eat. They need to be over-ripe – even black! – to have the right consistency and flavour once cooked. So when I go to our Asian/African shops in Toulouse to buy some, I choose very carefully.
Plantain are part of the staple diet of many tropical countries. In Gabon, our favourite, absolutely favourite food was grilled fish from the Copacabana (Yes, that was its name), a little hut down a side street in Port-Gentil, where Togolese women grilled the fish they and the men had pulled out of the sea the same morning. Because in Gabon, most of the fishing wasn’t done by Gabonese, but by the Togolese whose expertise was widely respected. The men would sit in the boats, bringing in the catch, while the women pulled the nets in onto the sand, singing. The children went around untangling the fish and putting them in plastic basins. We often saw them when we took the boys to the beach on the Atlantic Ocean side where wild waves crash onto the beach and strong currents would discourage even a strong swimmer from going for more than a dip (Port-Gentil also has a quiet lagoon with shallow water and no waves). It is a place where turtles nest and coconuts wash up.
In the evening, we would find the same women cooking the fish on an open fire and selling them with rice, tomato sauce, pilipili (the kind of hot chili purée that makes smoke curl out of your nostrils), and plantain banana fritters. They would let us choose a fish from one of the basins, ask if we wanted it “painted” (= marinated) and threw it on the grill. Every fish was a “daurade” (sea bream) when asked… but did it really matter? I never understood how they knew which fish was for which customer, because they kept shuffling them around, applying more “paint” and prodding the fish to check if it was ready. They never once mixed an order up.
What followed was the kind of meal where no-one talks. Everyone silently concentrated on their plate, eating half with a fork, half with their hands, sighing occasionally. I have tried time and again to recreate the flavour of that fish. I never have. My fish tastes good. But not like that. Wow.
I have, however, after a lengthy and often frustrating search, found the exact taste of chili purée we ate in Gabon. The one I buy now is called “Oh la la, ça pique“, which is an absolutely exact description. It’s really, really hot, but it has a specific flavour that I didn’t find in other chili purées, like Sambal Oelek or North American pastes. This one is made of a chili of (originally) Mexican origin, known also as Capsicum chinese, Piment Antillais or Piment Habanero. Not for the faint-hearted! You can buy it online for under 4 Euro and it will last you 6-12 months.
Supermarkets do, in the meantime, sell plantain bananas (usually around Christmas), but they are green. If you buy them green, the will go from unripe to rotten without passing the ripe stage. Unripe, they really do taste like potato and are impossible to peel. Rotten, they are also impossible to peel because they have gone completely rubbery, but they taste of nothing with a hint of acidity. Just don’t bother.
During my trip around Central America I was delighted to find plantain bananas served for breakfast with red or black beans and scrambled eggs, for lunch and dinner with everything from grilled meat to grilled fish. Sometimes they were soft and sweet, other times they look like they had been flattened with a hammer and fried on a griddle.
Today’s lunch was a fresh fish ceviche with crunchy plantain slivers, and a creamy coconut curry with seafood accompanied by crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside plantain fritters. Totally delish!
You can also buy little bags of banana chips, like Tayto crisps, either sweet, or with salt or chili powder as flavouring. I don’t have a deep fat fryer, but it might try out a few things to see if they crisp in the oven.
At home, I just cut the plantains into slices diagonally and fry them in a little butter, flipping them half-way through until they look done. Let them sit on a piece of kitchen paper for a minute and lightly salt them. Serve quickly, as they get cold fast. We eat them instead of potatoes with grilled meat, Poulet DG or Poulet Niemboué. In Gabon they also pounded them into a sort of paste with a texture not unlike polenta, sometimes with pieces of roasted peanut mixed in, or sprinkled on top.
Plantain banana. Poetry on a plate. Enough for me to wax lyrical… OK, I’ll stop now. Dinner is about ready.