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Food science goes bananas

How to ripen bananas, store them and make ingenious vegan bacon chips

Illustration by Krish Ashok. 
Illustration by Krish Ashok. 

You must be bananas to think that bananas are natural. The banana is one of the most unnatural and man-made of all fruits. For starters, it has no seeds, and a fruit is primarily an attractive bait for animals to help the plant reproduce. So, what gives?

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It turns out that banana cultivation involves using a bit of the plant’s rhizome (in its root) to grow another plant. This has interesting implications. Every single banana (of a particular variety) is a genetic clone. The yellow Cavendish banana you ate for breakfast is biologically the identical twin of every single Cavendish banana in the entire world. An edible banana is a sterile mutant.

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While this makes global supply chains efficient, it also makes bananas susceptible to plant diseases because the right microbe can wipe out every plant of a variety on the planet. This has already happened once. The yellow Cavendish became ubiquitous only because the Gros Michel, the world’s most widely grown banana then, was wiped out in the 1950s by a fungal infection called the Panama disease. Apparently, the Gros Michel had a richer and sweeter taste than the Cavendish, so even today, synthetic banana flavour tastes like the Gros Michel, not the monotonously one-dimensional Cavendish.

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If you want to appreciate the dizzying diversity of banana flavours, head to the tropics—Kerala and Tamil Nadu are where you get a ton of varieties, with flavours ranging from vanilla to caramel custard. There is even a rotund red variety that is an entire meal by itself.

The banana plant also has an edible stem, but it’s a fake stem made up of tightly packed leaves that simply unfurl towards the top. The one part of the plant that regularly makes my jaw drop is the flower. It’s a marvel of fractal geometry, as repeating units of individual flowers are arranged in a spiral and every single one of them grows into a fruit. And oh, the flower (some parts of it) is edible too.

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A raw banana is green in colour and starchy in taste. You can peel the skin and cook the insides as you would a potato or any other starchy vegetable. As the fruit ripens, it produces a gas called ethylene, which triggers a cascade of changes—an enzyme called chlorophyllase turns the green of the peel into yellow. Two more enzymes come into play—amylase, like the one in your saliva, is produced to break down starches into simpler sugars, which turns the fruit sweet. And pectinase breaks down pectin in the fruit, giving it a softer texture. As the fruit continues to ripen, polyphenol oxidase causes brown spotting—producing melanin compounds (much like our skin in the presence of sunlight) that defend the fruit against infections.

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A common “privileged urban” behaviour is to discard bananas that look too brown and mushy. They are perfectly edible. Even if you don’t like the texture, use them to make payasam, banana bread or a whole bunch of deep-fried treats like Mangalore buns and gulgulas.

As a tropical fruit, the banana plant has zero defences against colder temperatures. When you put one in a fridge, the lower temperature causes cell walls to rupture, leaking digestive enzymes that hasten the ripening process and turn the banana black in a very short time. This is why bananas must be stored at room temperature. To slow their ripening, it’s best to hang them from a hook so that it gives ethylene gas a better chance of dissipating into the air. If you want to ripen a green banana fast, just put it inside a paper bag and the trapped ethylene gas will accelerate the process.

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This seedless artificial wonder is the US retailing giant Walmart’s largest selling single product. Astonishing, for a plant that cannot grow anywhere outside of the tropics and cannot tolerate refrigeration.

Closer home, try and find varieties other than the yellow Cavendish. This will help improve the plant's genetic diversity and help it survive any future fungal catastrophes. Apparently, there is already a variety of fungus that is destroying Cavendish plantations in South and Central America, so it could go the way of the Gros Michel in the near future.

In 2014, Japanese tribologists (people who study friction and lubricants) discovered that the inner side of a banana peel produces a polysaccharide gel that has a co-efficient of friction with floors that is as low as Teflon on Teflon. This is why, they declared with no sense of the fact that it is painfully obvious common knowledge, that banana peels are slippery and have caused many a poor cartoon character grievous injuries over the years. They were awarded the Ig Nobel prize.

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However, if you take the peels of extremely ripe bananas, soak them in honey, soy sauce, garlic powder and chilli flakes for about 20 minutes and then fry them till they get crisp, you get vegan banana peel bacon.

 

Illustration by Krish Ashok.
Illustration by Krish Ashok.
Illustration by Krish Ashok.
Illustration by Krish Ashok.
Illustration by Krish Ashok.
Illustration by Krish Ashok.
Illustration by Krish Ashok.
Illustration by Krish Ashok.
Illustration by Krish Ashok.
Illustration by Krish Ashok.
Illustration by Krish Ashok.
Illustration by Krish Ashok.

Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking.

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    11.09.2021 | 08:31 AM IST
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