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Vazhakka puli koottu (left); and oven-baked banana chips. Photographs by Nandita Iyer
Vazhakka puli koottu (left); and oven-baked banana chips. Photographs by Nandita Iyer

Opinion | A bunch of ways to cook raw bananas

From everyday cooking to celebratory feasts and auspicious meals, the plantain is central to south Indian kitchens

If I had paid more attention to geography lessons in school, I would not have had to look up the location of Papua New Guinea on the world map. Bananas originated in this part of the world, spread to South-East Asia due to geographical proximity—and then to south India. Other plants, like coconut, betel leaf, areca nut, sago palm and certain yams, had a similar journey into south India, as mentioned in K.T. Achaya’s Indian Food—A Historical Companion.

While bananas are classified as cooking bananas and dessert bananas in North America and Europe, any variety of banana in its unripe phase is used for cooking in India and most parts of the world. Raw bananas are also called plantains, a term that has a Latin origin: planta meaning sole of the foot, indicating its resemblance to the banana plant’s broad leaves.

Plantains are used extensively in Tamil cooking. A thinner variety of plantain is used to prepare a minimalistic dry curry with salt, turmeric and red chilli powder, along with a tempering of mustard seeds and cumin in oil. A final sprinkle of asafoetida water adds a punch of flavour. Allowing the plantain slices to cook for a little longer on low flame with some extra oil gives a deliciously crispy layer that is a delight to scrape out of the pan and dig into.

A stockier variety of plantain called monthan-kai takes longer to cook, and pressure-cooking or boiling is a preferred method for it. Whole or halved plantains with skin are pressure-cooked for 5-7 minutes. The cooked plantains are then peeled and used in recipes. The other method is to peel and chop the raw plantain into desired shapes depending on the dish and boil in salted water until cooked.

The diced plantain is tossed in a simple tempering of mustard seeds, urad dal, dried red chillies and curry leaves, with a garnish of fresh coconut.

Plantain is also one of the “native" vegetables included in shradh (cooking for ancestors) in Tamil households, where the ingredients used pre-date the Columbian exchange that brought in produce from the new world. The plantain curry prepared for such ceremonies is seasoned only with salt and pepper-cumin powder. Vazhakka podimaas, a crumble of cooked plantains tossed in a tempering of green chillies, ginger, curry leaves, urad dal and chana dal, topped with lemon juice, is another Tamilian-style dish that pairs nicely with rasam-rice.

Plantains are also an important ingredient in Kerala’s sadhya (a festive feast). The ways in which plantains are prepared for the sadhya include:

Kalan or moru curry—coconut and yogurt-based curry

Erissery—in combination with cowpeas in a coconut-based curry, topped with roasted coconut

Mezhukkupuratti—a dry stir-fry with garlic, shallots and spices

Kootukari—a preparation of plantains with brown chickpeas, with flavours of toasted coconut and black pepper

Thoran—a dry preparation flavoured with cumin seeds, green chillies, coconut and onions or shallots

And most importantly, banana chips.

The world needs to be grateful to the person who first sliced up a raw banana and deep-fried it in hot oil, either accidentally or intentionally—combining just three ingredients, raw bananas, oil and salt to come up with the most addictive thing one can eat. It is the original and only no-one-can-eat-just-one snack and this matter is not open for debate.

The Nendran variety of bananas is traditionally used for chips. The best varieties of raw nendran banana turn a golden yellow when fried, without turmeric or any other artificial colour. Banana chips taste best fried in coconut oil, combining two of God’s Own Country’s produce in one crisp bite. Given that coconut oil goes rancid quickly, the shelf life of coconut-oil fried chips is rather short, and these are best bought from shops where the chips are made fresh rather than from a supermarket.

Vazhakka Puli Koottu

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 tbsp tamarind flakes (pressed)

1 cup hot water

2 raw bananas

N tsp turmeric powder

2 tsp sambhar powder

1 tsp salt

1-2 tsp rice flour

1 tbsp coconut oil

K tsp mustard seeds

1 sprig curry leaves

2 dried red chillies

1 tsp urad dal

1 tsp chana dal

A pinch of asafoetida

Method

Soak the tamarind in hot water in a bowl for 15 minutes. Squeeze well to get the extract and keep aside. Peel and dice the raw bananas (around 1cm cubes) and keep immersed in a bowl of water. In a pan, boil 2 cups water with K tsp salt. Drain and add diced raw bananas and boil for 4-5 minutes until nearly cooked.

To this, add the tamarind extract, turmeric, sambhar powder and the rest of the salt. Allow this to simmer for another 3-4 minutes until the raw banana is fully cooked and the smell of raw tamarind is gone. Make a slurry of rice flour in 2 tbsp water and add it to the pan to thicken the sauce by boiling for 1-2 minutes.

In a smaller pan, heat the oil. Add asafoetida. Fry mustard seeds, curry leaves, red chillies, urad dal and chana dal until the dals turn golden brown. Transfer this over the koottu. Serve hot with rice.

*2 tbsp of toasted grated coconut can be added as a garnish

Oven-Baked Banana Chips

Serves 2

Ingredients

1 large raw banana

1 tbsp coconut oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Preheat the oven at 190 degrees Celsius.

Peel the raw banana and slice into long strips using a peeler. Coat the slices immediately in coconut oil. Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Arrange the slices in a single layer and bake for 5-6 minutes at 190 degrees Celsius. Turn over and bake for another 3-4 minutes.

Toss in salt and crushed black pepper. The chips will turn crisper on cooling. Eat/serve immediately.

You can also prepare this in the air fryer.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.

@saffrontrail

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