Does ‘A banana a day’ keep the doctor away too?

An article posted on the website Indiadivine.org titled ‘Benefits of Eating Banana Flower’ triggered some reflections in me about the banana, a fruit which I relish: I eat a minimum of two a day, and I know many friends who similarly enjoy theirs daily.

Whenever the subject of banana comes up, I remember my father telling me about a thin Englishman who was working, like him, in the railway garage at Plaine Lauzun – that was the 1950s – and who used to eat one whole la main banane (that is, at least 10-12 bananas) everyday, and that too at one sitting, usually lunchtime. During my training in England my boss remarked, when I told him that I had the option of eating papaya and bananas daily for breakfast, that he would have loved to live in a country where he too could have the fresh fruits at breakfast daily.

I say ‘option’ specifically because we didn’t very much like papayas when we were growing up and even later as young adults, because they left a slightly bitter aftertaste in the mouth. In fact, once when we went to a cousin’s place in Brisée Verdière where she had married, we saw fresh ripe papayas lying on the grass in the garden when she took us around her yard. Surprised, we asked her why this was so and didn’t they eat papaya?

No, she replied, we give them to the goats! So when we were leaving she duly packed the fallen papayas for us, and we enjoyed them when we got back. But not plain papaya: we had come by a lovely recipe – after cutting the papaya in cubes, we sprinkled raw sugar over and added fresh orange juice, then mixed them thoroughly. We then put the bowl of papaya thus prepared in the fridge for one hour before relishing the delicious chunks. Those who have not had papaya in this way may wish to give it a try, and I am sure they will go for an encore.

I am writing about the days when we did not yet have the ‘solo’ variety of papaya that has been on the market for about two decades now. Its flesh is saffron-orange in colour and lighter in consistency compared to the ‘ordinary’ papaya, and it has a nice faint perfume that I am sure has something to do with enhancing the taste. It can be eaten plain, and in some ways tastes better than the older standard variety.

But let’s come back to the humble banana. I have never eaten any preparation made from banana flowers, although I did once see, not too long ago, a TV programme where an elderly lady was demonstrating the preparation of recipe with banana flowers. I must say it did look yummy.

The introduction to the article reads as follows: ‘The banana tree is the ideal to look up to when it comes to a “no wastage” policy. Almost all parts of the banana tree can be used. The most obvious is the fruit — bananas that we eat almost daily. But, other parts of the tree also offer many health benefits.

Both the South Asians and Southeast Asians use banana flowers as a vegetable. They use it either raw or steamed with dips. They also use those in soups, curries and fried foods. The flavour resembles that of artichoke. Like artichokes, both the fleshy part of the bracts and the heart are edible.’

Anyone who has studied English up to at least secondary level will be familiar with the oft-quoted proverb ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. The idea is obviously about healthy eating that must include fruits to ward off disease, and applies to any fruit that is widely available in a country. I do not know whether apples are grown in England, but the Englishman’s fondness for the apple makes it an almost iconic fruit there. In Mauritius this place is occupied by the humble but ubiquitous banana, and there would be one or several banana trees in almost everyone’s garden – this was certainly the case during our childhood days, and I don’t remember that we used to buy bananas as we do now. After all, aren’t we all so fond of du pain, du beurre, banane – and home-made lazelee during guava picking season? My mouth waters…

It’s been nearly a year now since there is a penury of bananas on the local market, due to a disease that blackens the banana skin, starting first as speckles that then spread and coalesce to cover practically the whole skin. Nevertheless, despite the price, I have kept up my daily banana eating habit, and the couple of banana trees in my yard have supplied some, but luckily in amounts that allowed some sharing with others.

Last December during a trip to Kashmir I was practically wonder-struck at the profusion of bananas being sold there – and what a contrast to the quasi-meagre ones that we had back home! The regines were huge, as if to match the size of the bananas they held that were a bright yellow, and the skin was spotless. I recall thinking then ‘if only I could carry a whole regine back with me!’ Impossible of course.

Health benefits of banana flowers

These range from warding off infections and wound healing, to helping body cells repair damage caused to them by what are known as free radicals. These are products of breakdown in the cells that may be a factor in premature aging and cancer. Suitably prepared through cooking and admixing with curd banana flowers help to relieve premenstrual pain and excessive menstrual bleeding in women. An additional benefit may be that they boost the supply of milk in lactating mothers.

They may also boost mood, acting thus as natural anti-depressants without any side effects. Further, they are a rich source of vitamins A, C and E and also contain minerals like magnesium and potassium.

I cannot vouchsafe for these medicinal virtues, but whatever be the case there certainly is no harm in consuming banana flowers, they can only do good to the body in a number of ways.

And there’s more

The unripe banana as is known to practically all of us has long been a favourite vegetable that can be prepared in an endless variety of recipes, of which we are familiar locally with the north-Indian and south-Indian ones mainly, and not only when we go to enjoy sept carris during Cavadee! A favourite recipe of mine was that which my late Dadi Betel (she used to chew betel nuts and leaves) was an expert at cooking over wood fire in an iron karhai, a mildly spicy preparation of banana in rondelles with salted fish in thin gravy. Eaten hot with white parathas they were a delight that to this day dwells in my memory.

Banana chips are a fairly recent modern invention, but banana in mixed fruit chat with chat masala is of course a very tasty snack which one can easily overeat if not careful! There’s gateau banane that has been an invariable item during Divali, and who does not whack his tongue at the thought of banana tart and banana flambée…

Modernity and perhaps access issues have forced the natural leaves out of easy reach, so that we now have the substitute of artificial banana leaf during haldis and other occasions on which to eat. As a decorative plant and a symbol of fertility the banana tree welcomes us at the entrance to houses where a marriage is being held, especially in Tamil households.

As for the trunk of the banana tree, I am sure that down in South India they must definitely be making some very good use of it.

All in all, like the coconut, a purna phal – complete fruit – , so is the banana plant equally purna in that every single part of the plant is beneficial to us in one way or another.

Many of us would remember the catchy tune of a very popular song that we used in days gone by not only to hum but to sing as well:

Le matin quand on se lève

La banane, la banane (bis)

Le matin quand on se lève

La banane c’est du soleil

Calypso banana, calypso banana…

The banana plant and its flowers and fruits – a perennial source of nourishment and joy!

* Published in print edition on 6 May 2016

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