I like bananas and I like travel. Put the two together, and you have an exquisite food journey. The Banana Pancake Trail leads one through some of Asia’s most important spiritual and culinary destinations. Starting in India, the Trail takes you through Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and, these days, well into China.
There is no fixed geographical pattern to the Banana Pancake Trail; it has no beginning and no end. Yet it is a path well trodden by the weary feet of those who seek. For decades, back-pack laden seekers, often with little more than hopeful eyes and hungry souls, have fueled their journeys with banana pancakes, as they moved from one cheap lodging to the next, hoping to find at least some fulfillment somewhere along the way.
Make no mistake; banana pancakes are not culinary masterpieces. They are cheap, easy to make, sweet and doughy. Yet they provide sweet comfort. Some kind of grounding in a world that is often unfamiliar and challenging. At times when you can trust nothing else, you can always trust the taste of sweet, sticky bananas wrapped in batter.
Personally, I found them to be a substantive morning-after remedy to the great discomfort caused by the previous night’s lonely quest to reach the bottom of a suspicious bottle.
Humans have cultivated bananas (genus Musa) for between 5,000 and 8,000 years. It’s origins are traced to Papua New Guinea and South East Asia and is linked to two wild varieties: Musa acuminate and Musa balbisiana. Edible hybrids of these wild varieties were cultivated as far back as 1,000 to 400 BC and it is speculated that they came to the African mainland from Indonesia via Madagascar. Today, domesticated bananas are classified into six to nine varieties, depending on the source used. India is the world’s largest producer of Banana and Uganda is Africa’s largest.
Most banana varieties can be eaten either cooked or raw. Plantains, a variety of bananas common in the Caribbean and West Africa, cannot be eaten raw and must be cooked, often combined with other starches.
The traditional Ghanaian starch stable, fufu, is made by first boiling plantain together with either cassava or yams. Once cooked, the fruits are then pounded until they show a dough-like consistency.
Banana varieties that do not require cooking are commonly referred to as dessert-bananas. Commercially produced bananas are harvested when the fruits are still green to reduce possible damage whilst being transported. Upon arrival at their destination, the fruit is placed in airtight rooms filled with ethylene gas (which acts as a plant hormone) to induce ripening. Green bananas that have not been “gassed” will never fully ripen, but will start rotting almost immediately. Green bananas can be cooked to be eaten, but are less sweet and starchier than ripe bananas. When dried, bananas can be processed into flour for baking. The skins, flowers and tender parts of the trunk are also edible, and are used as ingredients throughout South East Asia. The leaves are commonly used as serving vessels (plates) or for wrapping food for cooking.
This week’s recipe is my homage to the Banana Pancake Trail. Strolling around the Damnoen Saduak floating market outside Bangkok, I spotted a friendly vendor selling banana fitters. They were quite a treat, and she let me watch her make a few more until I had the recipe. I had them with condensed milk sweetened ice coffee (which is also found all long the Banana Pancake Trail), which turned out to be a most delectable combination. To elevate this humble dessert just a little, I turned the coffee into ice cream.
Happy eating and happy seeking.