Despite a recent smattering of articles and Brooklyn boosterism, the plantain has long been eclipsed by its banana cousin. Where can the curious go to learn about its fascinating transnational history?
When retired history professor Kwaku A. Adoboli traveled to Togo, the West African country of his birth, he interviewed well-known oral storytellers of the Bogo people.
Among the tales that appear in his book African Folk Tales Illustrated is a story that aims to explain the mysterious divide between bananas and plantains, longtime staples of West African diets.
According to “Why Plantain is Curved and Banana is Short,” Plantain asked Banana why it makes so much noise during storms. The conversation devolves into a heated quarrel in which Plantain asks Banana if the other fruit knows Plantain is “much older and wiser.” The fight turns physical, resulting in a stomach punch that permanently curves Plantain and a stick to the head, which makes Banana forever short.
I have been asking myself why some foods are considered worthy of having their stories shared far and wide, while others are not.
Considering the multiple books on the banana’s history—and the scant literature on the plantain—one might understand why Plantain in the story needs to set the record straight.
I have been asking myself why some foods are considered worthy of having their stories shared far and wide, while others are not. I’ve wondered this ever since exchanging emails with the editor of a popular series of single-subject food history books. He said the series publisher had turned down pitches for a book on plantain more than once. Bluntly, they did not think it would sell enough copies.
The series has published more than 90 titles thus far—on topics as far-reaching as avocado, saffron, figs, foie gras, edible flowers, seaweed, curry, dumplings, and milk—and has more titles forthcoming. They have also, as the editor pointed out to me, published a book on the banana.
Of course the books in this series are, by no means, the only single-subject food history books on the market today. Microhistory emerged as a genre in Italy during the 1970s and has gained popularity over the past couple decades in food publishing. “In food history terms, there is nothing more ordinary than the everyday food ordinary people eat, and microhistorical studies of these unprepossessing subjects are popular, so much so that, at times, they are topping the bestseller lists,” writes Australian food writer and professor Donna Lee Brien. Indeed, books such as Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World have received praise from critics and readers, with nearly 90,000 ratings between them on the book review site Goodreads.
In this genre, the banana has garnered a fair amount of coverage. In addition to Banana: A Global History, published as part of the aforementioned series, Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World ranks high on many bestseller and recommended reading lists. Peter Chapman’s Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World has also received a lot of attention. (And while not a book, The Counter itself has done its own single-subject deep dive on the ubiquitous banana.)
But what about the plantain?
As a first-generation Nigerian-American, I grew up eating plantain and consider it an essential part of my understanding of what it means to be West African. Each bite of plantain connects me to my roots, though I am many miles from my father’s homeland.
There are few—online or in print—easily digestible and accessible global histories that tell the plantain’s tale.
You may be thinking that you’ve seen plantain in the media recently, and you’d be right. It is not uncommon these days for stories in prominent publications to praise the fruit for its multifunctionality, and to offer recipes. Over the past couple years, Nigerian food writer and recipe developer Yewande Komolafe has written about the starchy fruit and its versatility for both TASTE and The New York Times. Also, word has been spreading about Ghanaian-American scholar and entrepreneur Rachel Laryea, founder of the plant[ain]-based Brooklyn shop Kelewele, which opened last year. Laryea sells all kinds of amazing plantain-based foods ranging from what she calls “placos” (plantain tacos) to “Liquid Gold” plantain ice cream, not to mention some fashionable plantain gear.
Yet, even with Komolafe and Laryea’s efforts, among others, I still see a gap in the publishing world when it comes to plantain. There are few—online or in print—easily digestible and accessible global histories that tell the plantain’s tale. I believe the American public deserves the chance to hear the plantain’s unique story, like the fact that one of the world’s leading banana experts once hypothesized that it may have been the first-ever fruit crop on Earth.
Admittedly, an investigation into plantain’s origins leads to words like “complex.” That’s because the history of the plantain is nearly inextricably linked to the history of the banana. This makes sense as the two fruits have an abundance of overlaps, even today. And it’s worth noting that when you start investigating bananas and plantains, you will find divided opinions and classifications: Are plantains a type of banana? Are they genetically related but distinct? Is the truth somewhere in between? Experts disagree.
Regardless, it’s clear that plantains are of singular importance in many cultures across the globe, and have a rich and complicated history that’s both intertwined and distinct from the banana. As Komolafe notes in her Times piece, “[L]ike bananas, plantains grow in tropical and subtropical climates across the globe, ensuring that they are always in season and making them a crucial ingredient in cuisines across West Africa, South and Central America, India and the Caribbean.”
“If the term ‘crop’ signifies a plant that can be grown for subsistence, then the plantain and the edible diploid bananas may indeed have been the first fruit crop.”
It might be easiest, then, to begin—but not end—with the banana, whose origins are generally considered to be in Southeast Asia between 8000-5000 BCE. In his 1995 paper “Banana and Plantain: The Earliest Fruit Crops?” Professor Edmond De Langhe, founding director of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP), discusses bananas and plantains as two separate groups, hypothesizing, “If the term ‘crop’ signifies a plant that can be grown for subsistence, then the plantain and the edible diploid bananas [a group that shares a similar genetic structure or makeup] may indeed have been the first fruit crop, at a time when hunting and gathering were still the main means of procuring food.” De Langhe theorized that between the 5th and 15th centuries, bananas and plantains likely moved along the coast of the Indian Ocean by humans. After that, up until the 19th century, Portuguese and Spanish traders probably carried the crops “all over tropical America.”
This is fascinating information about the plantain’s globetrotting. Yet, not only is it hypothetical—it is also only available online as a file that requires a degree of tech-savvy to access. And De Langhe’s audience is by no means the general Western public. Though he has done amazing research into the plantain, much of De Langhe’s work is stuck in peer-reviewed (and paywalled) academic journals. Most other works that mention the plantain’s past are also buried in academic texts not accessible to the masses.
And speaking of the masses, where are the stories by people who live and breathe plantain, consuming it every day of their lives, in the research?
We have to construct our own plantain history. And piecing together the fruit’s unheralded story will require scouring the internet’s far corners to see what stories exist in the online world’s remote regions. And it will also require getting out and talking to those for whom plantaining is a way of life.
Here is how I would start.
In my father’s homeland of Nigeria, fried plantain, referred to as dodo in his native Yoruba language, is a favorite food. In this country famous for having one of the highest rates of twin births in the world, a common piece of plantain folklore is that if you encounter a pair of conjoined plantains, you must separate them in front of yourself. Otherwise, doing so behind your back will cause you to birth conjoined twins.
As evidenced on many a food blog, plantain has long been so central to the way of life in both Cuba and the Dominican Republic that a particular descriptor—aplatanado—is used among locals. It roughly translates as “to be plantainized” or “to be plantain-like” and is used to refer to foreigners who have become accustomed to the local traditions. In a post on their award-winning “Dominican Cooking” food blog, Clara Gonzalez and Ilana Benady proclaim, “As plantains are a traditional, indispensable, and favorite addition to our daily meals, they have apparently been chosen to represent our sense of being Dominican in the same manner that people from the U.S. have chosen apple pie.”
One of the few references to plantain’s history I have seen in a prominent Western publication was in the food origins and culture magazine Whetstone last year. The article, written by Indian food writer Jehan Nezar, focuses on the Mappilas, a Muslim community in the south Indian state of Kerala. “The story of bananas and plantains in Mappila cuisine is also a tale that is interwoven with that evocative element of nostalgia,” Nezar writes.
As Nezar distinguishes between the two fruits, she documents the plantain in dishes that sometimes show its relationship to the banana and sometimes its uniqueness. To illustrate the plantain’s distinct significance in Mappilan cuisine, she tells the story of local cookbook author Ummi Abdulla, whom she calls “the doyenne of Kerala’s Mappila cuisine.” Abdulla hosted a food festival at a 5-star hotel in another town, but the venue was unable to provide plantains. Adamant that she could not host the event without the fruit, she resolved to get plantains to the hotel on her own. “I ended up having to send raw plantains from Kerala by courier,” she tells Nezar. “By the time I reached Kolkata, they were ripe.”
“It’s folks that look like me that are doing that work of putting plantain on America’s culinary landscape.”
Don’t these anecdotes documenting plantain’s global presence demand that we need to know more? Or call for more curiosity, at the very least? As a child growing up in California, I recall reading Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poem “United Fruit Co.” at school and learning about the imperialist invasions orchestrated by American banana companies in Central America. It was a troubling look at the dark history of the banana industry but was also required reading for all students. I was 37 the first time I saw plantain mentioned in a piece of literature, and that was because I went digging for it. Yes, plantain is less common and less popular in the West than the banana. But that doesn’t mean its story should be invisible.
I spoke with Rachel Laryea about her work toward shining a spotlight on the plantain via her Kelewele shop in Brooklyn. She said it is as much an educational endeavor as it is entrepreneurial. “I spend a lot of time educating people on what plantains are in the first place,” she said. “It’s folks that look like me that are doing that work of putting plantain on America’s culinary landscape.”
That landscape may soon look brighter thanks to an upcoming release in the publishing world: a children’s book. Earlier this year, Afro-Latinx author Alyssa Reynoso-Morris landed a deal with Atheneum—an imprint of the third largest publisher in the United States, Simon & Schuster—to publish her debut children’s book Plátanos Are Love in 2023. The book tells the story of a young girl who learns about plantain’s cultural significance from her grandmother.
I talked to Reynoso-Morris about the inspiration behind her book. “Growing up, I ate plantains for every meal basically,” she said. Since her audience is young children, Reynoso-Morris said her book will focus narrowly on plantain’s significance in Dominican and Puerto Rican cultures. However, she hopes to include a map of all the countries where plantain is eaten in the back matter of the book and also to share lesson plans with information about plantain’s global presence on her website.
While I wait for Reynoso-Morris’ book to reach my hands and my sons’ ears, you’ll encounter me reading, writing, and talking about my favorite starchy fruit, continuing my never-ending quest to normalize knowledge of its past.
When it comes to the plantain, there are more stories to tell, more blanks to fill in—and, I maintain, a book’s worth of global history that needs to be written.
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