Monday, November 17, 2008

Red Bananas

I really like bananas. Currently, due to the intersection of my love of their flavor and my constant hunger with their nutritional value, their bulk, and their low cost, I am consuming three bananas a day. Once I heard a rumor that eating more than two bananas a day could lead to an early death due to the high levels of potassium. Actually, I think I read it in a book or saw it in a movie but a quick search on the Google results in many pages in support of this idea that bananas are going to kill me.


I feel fine.

Regardless of whether or not bananas are going to cause me any sufficient damage, the sad fact is that the trees bearing these wonderful packages of plant matter are currently under threat from the horrid Fusarium oxysporum/Panama disease/Agent Green, a fungus that wiped out the Gros Michel cultivar of banana, predecessor to the current most popular variety, the Cavendish. The bananas you buy at the store are all the product of essentially the same organism. You may have noticed that the bananas you buy have no seeds as a wild specimen would have. This is because all Cavendish banana plants are reproduced by removing and planting offshoots from the main plant. Banana plantations are armies of clones producing sterile organs harvested for our consumption. As a result of this homogeneity, what ails one banana tree can lead to the destruction of them all and Fusarium oxysporum, to which Cavendish bananas had earlier been resistant to, seems poised to obliterate many of the commercial banana crops around the world.

So what do we do? Experimenting with the commercial viability of other banana cultivars is one good tactic and it may not be long before we start to see red bananas appearing in many of the major super markets. They're already infiltrating the smaller health food stores which is where I picked up my first sample.

Here's one major problem with introducing new bananas or different pigments: when are they ripe? The green, yellow, black phases we use to make judgement calls regarding the state of a banana don't work when the banana is red. Instead you have a red/pink, red/purple, black progression and the distinction between the under-ripe and ripe phases can be confusing.

So I bought my first red banana and rushed home, excited, for my first sampling. I took some pictures, did a bit of reading, and decided that it should be good to consume. I peeled back the skin a bit which showed some resistance. "It's just a different type of banana," I said to myself and then sunk my teeth into the flesh. Immediately all of the moisture was sucked out of my mouth and into the banana shaped block of wood. Not ripe, nowhere near it. Leaving it for a few days didn't rectify the problem and, heartbroken, I was forced to abandon the banana to the trash can.

red banana

Fast forward to a market in rural Pisac, Peru. We'd been told to be wary of eating local fruit unless you could peel it yourself. Even then, be careful we were warned. So I was wandering around, observing the wares and dodging chunks of flesh and bone flying forth from the butcher stalls, when I saw them: bananas rojas! My health store midget cost me about a dollar in the US; I scored this whopper for a mere 15 cents and I didn't even think to haggle.

The scent of the red banana is a bit more "tropical" than what we're used to with our yellow Cavendish cultivar. There is a hint of the acidity of citrus in the aroma and a floral component. The taste and texture are noticeably different but not drastic enough to jeopardize its commercial viability. The hint of citrus is present in the flavor whilst the typical "banana flavor" is less pungent but bold nonetheless. The texture is fluffier, a bit velvety, and a little drier which results in a slightly less filling snack. I've also noticed that they tend to be shorter than the Cavendish but are often a bit fatter when at full size.

red banana peeled

I've had subsequent success with buying from the health food store so just be sure to pick the darker, more purple banana if you're planning to give one a try or you'll get a mouthful of wood. While I would surely lament the passing of the yellow Cavendish banana if it ever came to a tragic end, I would be just as happy with the red banana and would love to see them both sold side-by-side in major supermarkets.

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