Food of the Gods

November 1st, 2009
by Alfonso Ebanks

[private] v7-11-Our IslandsAbout one thousand years ago, the sweet potato mysteriously appeared in the Polynesian Islands in the South Pacific. This tuber is native to the tropical areas of South America. What makes this transplant unique is that the species of sweet potato that was found in the Pacific Islands are of the cultivated variety and can only be propagated by way of vine cuttings. This negates any theories of seeds transported by floating on the ocean or by birds. Today the sweet potato is found all over the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia, and in Papua New Guinea, it is now the staple diet of its islanders.

Five hundred years after the sweet potato reached Polynesia, the banana was brought to the Americas by Portuguese sailors. In many parts of Latin America the banana is still called “guineo,” which literally means “from Guinea” or “Guinean,” which might suggest that the Portuguese brought this fruit from Guinea, West Africa. However, the general consensus is that this most marvelous fruit originated in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. It took five hundred years to complete the trade of the banana for the sweet potato but it was worth it and I believe that we got the better part of the deal.

The banana as we know it is a seedless fruit that has many uses. The cultivar names do not suggest its intended use for desserts or cooking. In years past the most prominent type of banana planted in the local area were the Lakatan, slowly to be replaced by the Gros Michel cultivar (French banana), which was then phased out in the 1960s. The Gros Michel was replaced by the Cavendish, which was considered to produce a higher quality fruit than the other resistant cultivars.

The banana that we are all familiar with has at most 20 years before it, too, will have to be replaced. This is because a new strain of the disease that previously wreaked havoc on the French banana has evolved. The strain is now devastating the Cavendish cultivar to the point that it could soon become unviable for large scale cultivation. Not to worry; many parts of the world have labs working on this potential problem. These laboratories collect wild banana plants and their seeds for cross breeding and cloning. There are collections centers in the US, Germany, and other locations including La Lima, Honduras. The collection center in La Lima maintains a collection of 470 cultivars and 100 species of the valuable fruit, which is actually classified as a berry!

The banana from Latin America is exported primarily to the United States and Europe. In the United States it is the most popular fruit, outselling the apple. When ripe, it is aromatic and sweet. It is also an excellent source of carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. It is most popular with athletes as it contains three natural sugars – glucose, fructose and sucrose – as well as fiber. Research has shown that just two bananas can provide enough energy for a strenuous hour and half workout. Other benefits include: controlling blood sugar, alleviating stomach problems, promoting the production of hemoglobin, lowering blood pressure, reducing risk of stroke, boosting brain power, and helping to restore normal bowel movements. Rubbing the inside of ripe banana peel on insect bites relieves the burning and itching. Finally, the banana is purported to be the best cure for a hangover when used in a banana and honey milk shake. Try it!

Before there was any banana export business on the mainland, the people of these islands made a living by exporting this fruit to New Orleans and New York. We islanders eat the green banana, and we call it “bread-kind” to differentiate it from “meat-kind.” I don’t know if a body gets any benefits from eating a cooked green banana, but I know that a “steamed old wife” (local queen triggerfish dish), baked meat and any kind of coconut dinner would not be possible without the venerable banana.

By the way, the banana belongs to the genus Musa and the family Musaceae. The word banana is supposed to have come from the Arabic word “banan,” which means “finger.” It should have been called “alasbaa althhbay,” or “golden finger.” Another good name would have been “food of the gods.” [/private]

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