The Fresh Factor: Going Bananas
I often joke with friends that I should rename this column what it really is: “Finding out what the locals already know.” That title is a bit cumbersome, but it’s far and away more accurate.
Every time I stop at one of Guam’s markets, I marvel at all the information I get in such a small exchange of words. Conversations have a bit of a pattern to them by now.
Me (eyebrow raised): “What is this?”
Farmer: “That’s a (fill in blank with word I have never heard before).”
Me: “A what?”
Farmer repeats until I have a firm confidence in how it’s spelled so I can Google it later.
Me: “What do you do with it?”
Farmer instructs me on peeling and cooking methods then spouts off eight recipes for smoothies, curries, soups, pies, etc., featuring said produce and other ingredients found on table.
The conversation wraps up as we exchange cash, produce, and names. It ends with smiles of appreciation on both sides.
One of the most plentiful and easy-to-find, year-round fruit on island happens to be one that I have learned the most about during my farmer’s market conversations: bananas. The more I learn about bananas from the locals, the more I realize I have completely overlooked the obvious. I had no idea there was so much to learn! Here are a few slices of banana wisdom I have picked up, fresh from the market to you.
Not all bananas are created equal. According to a farmer at Chamorro Village named Ken, local bananas grow on some of the tallest trees in Guam’s jungles, which means they are often the first trees to topple during a typhoon. After one of Guam’s major typhoons, banana trees were brought in from Fiji, Palau, Manila, and elsewhere to replenish the banana crops, which is why there are many different varieties that grow well here.
You can taste the difference — just ask! Farmer Ken led me through a taste test of three different kinds of bananas at his produce table at Chamorro Village one Wednesday morning. It was amazing to taste the difference in sweetness and learn how to tell which banana is which. Now I know to look for Fiji bananas, the shorter, rounder bananas with pointy tips on the ends. They are sweeter and softer than the Manila bananas, which have rounder ends. Fiji and Manila bananas are both inherently more delicious and remarkably less expensive than the commonplace Candish bananas shipped in from Central America.
Local bananas are different. The fatter, boxier local bananas (a.k.a. “cooking bananas” or plantains, though they aren’t often called that here) have a much heartier and starchier consistency, more like a potato or a breadfruit. According to one Agat Market farmer, there are even different varieties of cooking bananas. Some are used for soups, for ice cream, for donuts, etc. They aren’t as sweet to eat plain on their own, but (here’s another local tip) it turns out local bananas taste great when nuked in the microwave (30-45 seconds, or until the peel pops off).
Bananas have hearts (who knew?). One of my first times eyeing the local produce section at a Payless Supermarket, I picked up a reddish-brown pod and asked the stocker my usual question, “What is this?”
“It’s a banana heart,” he said. (I was grateful he did not add the implied “Duh” that my question seemed to deserve at the time.)
Turns out banana trees have hearts, or buds, from which bunches of bananas begin to grow. When added to coconut-based curries, banana hearts add a buttery nuttiness that’s well worth the effort of peeling and chopping and salting.
Stretch your Fresh Factor muscles and give this banana heart recipe a try. You’ll be more than satisfied with the decadent combination of flavors. And as a bonus, you’ll be one step closer to finding out what the locals already know.
Banana Heart Coconut Ginger Beef Curry
1 medium banana heart
1 Tbsp. fresh ginger slices
3 Tbsp. garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
3-4 Tbsp. coconut oil
1 Tbsp. vinegar
1 lbs. sirloin, cut into strips (chicken and pork okay too)
3-5 boonie peppers, minced (include seeds at your own risk)
1 can coconut cream
salt and pepper to taste
Preparation: Remove the reddish leaves and petals from the banana heart. Slice the remaining yellow/white inner pieces lengthwise into four sections, then chop crosswise into ½ cm slices. Soak in salted water until ready to cook to prevent chopped buds from turning gray. Drain when ready to use and squeeze out the excess water.
Cooking: Heat oil in pan. Sautee ginger until golden brown, then add onions and garlic and sauté until softened. Add meat and sauté until cooked. Add the banana heart and vinegar. Cover and let sit on medium heat for 4-5 minutes. Add chilies and continue cooking until banana hearts are soft. Pour in the coconut cream and simmer for 10 minutes giving the sauce a chance to thicken. Serve over white rice. Serves 3-4.