• Geetanjali Chakraborty

Majestic Banana: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

As a granddaughter of India’s partition in 1947, I had the unique honor of being born in a bi-cultural family. My father's parents migrated to India from East Bengal (now Bangladesh). My mother's parents migrated to India from West Punjab (now Pakistan). I vividly remember growing up eating both Punjabi and Bengali food at home. From an early age, my palate had accepted this culinary confluence as being normal. My Punjabi mother took a keen interest in learning exotic East Bengal cooking from her Bengali mother-in-law, who lived with us. Thanks to her, I was exposed to East Bengal cuisine, which my Bengali husband has the joy of rediscovering in a different form through me, after our marriage.


As my journey of Ayurveda deepened, I gained a newfound appreciation for Bengali cuisine due to its rootedness in Ayurvedic principles. This post will focus on one plant in particular, the Majestic Banana, which is an integral part of the Bengali culinary culture.


Geography and the Banana


West Bengal, or Poshchim Bongo, is a fertile state where the mighty river Ganga takes her final dip into the Bay of Bengal. It is both a riverine and a coastal state, with numerous ponds. This is important to note because there are three kinds of deshas (lands) according to Ayurveda: anup (marshy), jaangala (dry/desert) and saadhaaran (a combination of the first two). This typology is used to universally describe any land. Banana grows in anup desha (marshy land), and Bengal being touched by so much water has a largely marshy characteristic.[1]


Take a road trip in Poshchim Bongo and you will find endless fields of Banana groves strewn across miles, leaving its distinct stamp on the landscape. Bengalis are known to be real foodies and seek diversity in their food preparations. Unfortunately, the land also has a history of famines and droughts. This contradiction of climatic scarcity coupled with a love of food has led to a culinary innovation that is unique to this region. Every part of the Banana plant, from its fruit, flower, stem, and leaf is sourced by Bengalis for various preparations.

A lush banana grove on the highway from Kolkata to Chunchro
A lush banana grove on the highway in West Bengal

Let’s take a look at every part of this wonderful plant and examine it within its cultural context.

 
Tagore's poem on display at Mishti Hub, New Town, Kolkata

The Fruit: Ripe Banana


The Banana fruit is exalted by no less than India’s prolific Nobel laureate poet, Rabindranath Tagore, in one of the first poems he wrote as a child.


"Aamshotto dropped in milk, Mashed further with shondesh, The sounds of slurping, Surrounded by a stunned silence, Ants crying at the empty plate."


The Banana is known as Kadali in Sanskrit and Kodoli in Bangla (as seen in Tagore’s poem).


A word of warning: Although Tagore's description is mouthwatering, I am not recommending it from an Ayurvedic perspective as there are very few fruits that can be mixed with milk, and banana is not one of them.


Let’s examine the banana’s properties from an Ayurvedic perspective.


Tat-Phalam Madhuram Shiitam Vissttambhi Kapha-Krd-Guru |

Snigdham Pittaasra-Trng-Daaha-Kssata-Kssaya-Samiira-Jit ||31||

- Madanapala Nighantu


Shloka Translation: Banana fruit is sweet, cooling, kapha aggravating and heavy in its properties. It is unctuous, reduces pitta and burning. It heals injuries and tissue depletion. It helps in pacifying vata.


It is best to always eat bananas grown locally, so that as per local climate and weather patterns, the appropriate nutrients are received by one’s body. Since it is heavy to digest, ripe banana is best eaten by itself and not mixed with any other food.


kadalī vāraṇā vāraṇabusā'mbusārāṃśumatī phalā ।

mocāphalaṃ svādu śītaṃ viṣṭambhi kaphanudguru ॥33॥

- Bhavprakash, Phalavarga 33


Shloka Translation: Banana is known by various names - Kadai, Varana, Ambusara, Amsumat. This fruit is considered sweet, cooling, kapha aggravating and heavy to digest.


snigdhaṃ pittāsratṛḍdāhakṣatakṣayasamīrajit ॥

pakvaṃ svādu himaṃ pāke svādu vṛśyañca vṛṃhaṇam ।

kṣuttṛṣṇānetragadahṛnmehaghnaṃ rucimāṃsakṛt ॥34॥

- Bhavprakash, Phalavarga 34


Shloka Translation: Banana is unctuous, pacifies pitta, blood and vata. When ripe, it is sweet in taste, cooling, sweet in post-digestive effect, increases virility and is bulk promoting. It is useful in hunger, thirst, eye disease, urinary disease, promotes taste and bulk.

 

The Vegetable: Raw Banana or Plantain

Raw bananas

Raw banana (kaacha kola in Bengali, or kachcha kela in Hindi) enjoys a popular place in Bengali cuisine as a cooked vegetable. Given its astringent quality, it helps in assimilation and can be used to soothe the stomach when suffering from dysentery or loose bowel movement.


I enjoy cooking this in a stew with stone-ground ginger and cumin paste. You can use the raw banana as a healthier substitute for potato. When cooked, it becomes soft. It is rich in iron.


Raw bananas are popular in Northern India and are cooked as a special recipe during certain festivals.






 

The Banana Leaf

Banana leaf has a large surface area, making it an ideal bio-degradable plate on which meals can be served. After finishing the meal, the leaf can be conveniently folded and disposed off in such a way that animals and microorganisms can then take over and enjoy its remains. [2]

Banana leaves

The Banana leaf is also used in Bengali cooking. This genre of cooking is called Paaturi (from the root word Paata, which translates as 'leaf').[3] A fish wrapped in banana leaf with mustard paste and spices can be easily steamed and served with rice for a meal in a non-vegetarian Bengali household. Vegetarian Bengalis replace fish with paneer, mochaa (banana flower), or any other seasonal vegetable that can be cooked the same way.


The banana leaf contains sufficient moisture for steaming the ingredients wrapped in them. The nutrients in the leaf get stimulated and absorbed by these ingredients while cooking, giving the food its distinct flavor and mouth-watering aroma.





 

The Flower: Mochaa

The Banana flower (called Mochaa in Bangla) is used for making a vegetable called Mochaar Ghonto. This is the banana flower finely chopped and sautéed with spices.

RECIPE FOR BANANA FLOWER: MOCHAAR GHONTO


Step 1: Soak the banana flower overnight in salt, turmeric and lemon juice (only applicable if the flower is from an unripe banana plant).

Step 2: Next day, wash and boil the flower with a little salt and turmeric. This is to infuse flavor and remove the astringent quality from the vegetable.

Step 3: Finely chop the banana flower (mochaa) after removing the stem from within. If the stem is not removed, it doesn’t soften even after cooking.

Step 4: Dice some potatoes, add salt and turmeric to them. Sautée on the side for a few minutes. (Potatoes are added to Bengali dishes to give body to the recipe. Food shortages being rampant due to famines, large families used potatoes as an innovative solution for increasing the quantity of most dishes. It is optional to use it in this dish.)

Step 5: For added flavoring, sliced coconut can be fried and kept aside.

Step 6: In a pan, add a few tablespoons of mustard, sunflower or peanut oil. The type of oil used varies as per different typologies. West Bengal being anup (marshy land), kapha and vata get easily aggravated. Hence, food is always cooked in mustard oil, which has a natural heating property. Because I live in the Bay Area where the weather is more of a saadhaarana kind (combination of marshy and dry), I tend to use sunflower oil (in summer) or ghee (in winters).

Step 7: To this heated oil, add a bay leaf, 2-3 cardamom pods, an inch of cinnamon stick, 1 teaspoon of grated ginger, 1 teaspoon of cumin powder and half a cup of chopped tomato. Once the oil separates, add the chopped and boiled mochaa, potato and fried coconut to this mix. Cook on medium heat, until the vegetables are soft.

The Banana flower can come from two different varieties of the banana plant, and each has a different preparation method. If the flower comes from a plant that bears ripe bananas, it can be cooked directly as it is sweet in taste. However, if the flower comes from the unripe green banana plant, it will be bitter in taste due to its astringent quality. So, it will need to be marinated in lime and salt overnight, before cooking the following day.


A quick visual inspection can help us differentiate between the two kinds of banana flowers: ripe banana flower has a conical shape, whereas the unripe banana flower has a cylindrical shape.

​RECIPE FOR BANANA FLOWER WRAPPED IN LEAF: MOCHAAR PATURI

Mochaar Paturi
  • Step 1: Finely chop the banana flower (mochaa) after removing its stem from inside. Soak it overnight with salt, turmeric and lemon juice. Wash and boil the flower the next day with salt and turmeric.

  • Step 2: Marinate the boiled mochaa with mustard seed and poppy seed paste, taken in a 1:1 tablespoon ratio.

  • Step 3: Add to this a tablespoon of freshly grated coconut, mustard/sunflower oil, salt, turmeric and green chili (if you want to spice it up).

  • Step 4: Wrap this mixture in a banana leaf, tie with a thread and slow cook on low heat in a cast-iron pan for an hour. Make sure the pan is slightly coated with mustard/sunflower oil so that the banana leaf doesn't stick to it. Keep the pan covered with a lid while cooking.

This is a considered a dish for special occasions and is quite popular in Bengali restaurants. It is especially consumed during monsoon when kapha increases in the atmosphere so the heating spices in this dish help balance it out in the body.


Banana Flower Pod

Banana Flower Pod

The inner core of the Banana Flower (Mochaa), which is essentially a flower pod, is to be cleaned by removing the dark stem so that it becomes soft and is easily digestible after cooking. This is used to make a tasty fried dish called Bhutuk, which is enjoyed as an accompaniment with lentils and rice.

RECIPE FOR BANANA FLOWER POD: BHUTUK

Bhutuk

Step 1: Cut the cleaned inner core into long slices and steam it. Step 2: Immerse it in a batter of rice flour with Kaalo Jeeray (Nigella Seeds) and salt. Step 3: Deep fry into a fritter and enjoy it with rice and lentils.

 

The Stem: Thore

The inner stem of a Banana tree, also called Thore, contains a lot of water and is rich in nutrition. It has an outer fibrous layer which needs to be removed before you can get to its soft white core.

I remember learning from my grandmother how to curl the fibers around my index finger and take them out. Though it’s a painstaking task, it is important to do this because the fiber hairs can get stuck in the mouth while eating and spoil the taste of the dish. This process still continues to be followed not just in Bengal, but in Southern states of India too. After getting rid of the fibrous layers outside, what remains is a soft white core, which is finely chopped and sautéed with spices to make a delicious side dish.

RECIPE FOR BANANA STEM: RICED THORE

Riced Thore

Step 1: Soak the chopped banana stem (thore) in cold salt water for at least an hour. This prevents the vegetable from darkening due to exposure to direct oxygen and helps in mashing it later.

Step 2: Drain the salt water after an hour and wash the soaked vegetables for a few minutes. This softens the vegetable.

Step 3: In a pan, add a little ghee (clarified butter), half a teaspoon of black mustard seeds and 1 whole red chili. Add the mashed-up banana stem (thore) to this mix and sprinkle turmeric and salt to taste. Sauté the mix until fully cooked.


Now let’s look at what Ayurveda has to say about the Banana stem:


Kadalii Yonidossa-Ashma-Raktapitta-Haraa Himaa |

Tat-Kandah Shiitalo Balyah Keshyah Pitta-Kapha-Asra-Jit ||30||

- Madanapala Nighantu


Shloka Translation: Banana helps with conditions related to the reproductive organ, urinary stones and bleeding disorders. The stem of the banana plant is cooling, provides strength, good for the hair. It pacifies pitta and kapha.

 

Old Plant, New Respect

With a renewed appreciation for the banana, I have a new lens of respect for the great giver, the Majestic Banana! I enjoy seeing it grow on my parents' rustic farm, and savor the dishes made with love by my family.


Whether you have the luxury of growing your own banana plant, or know a place where it grows, perhaps you might want to say 'Hello!' to it with a sense of respect now. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, know that you get all of the above varieties of the banana plant here. The next time you visit an Indian store, look out for the other parts of the banana plant and you will find mochaa and thore. And when you want to do something fun with your friends, try going bananas!

 

1. Note that Florida is another example of anup desha where bananas grow well.

2. In the Western world, one has to be careful to find a banana leaf from a plant that is organic in order to avoid harmful chemicals that may be sprayed on them. In West Bengal, usually the leaves are chosen from a plant in one’s own backyard since banana grows widely in most households’ kitchen garden.

3. I have eaten something similar in the Bay Area but with a corn leaf, and it is called Tamales.

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