The Versatile Banana Plant – More Than Just Fruit

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A large bunch of bananas ripening on a banana plant in India.
Indian green bananas in Kerala. Image: © Sidhik Keerantakath

Banana plants, with their broad flat leaves swaying gently in the breeze and clusters of bananas hanging from under them, are a common sight throughout the tropical world. But this is no ordinary fruit-bearing plant. Apart from the bunches of bananas that it produces, every part of the plant, from the leaves and the flowers to the stem and the roots, can be used in multiple ways.

Perhaps that’s why bananas are associated with prosperity and fertility in several cultures and the plants are often considered an intrinsic part of many festivals and celebrations.

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Firstly, let’s put to rest one common misconception – the plant that produces bananas is not a tree. Botanically, it does not have any characteristics of trees. The stem is a type of pseudostem that is formed from leaf sheaths. So it’s incorrect to refer to it as a banana tree. It’s a banana plant.

So how many ways can you use a banana plant? There are more than you may realize.

The Leaves

Banana leaves are large, flat and flexible. They are also waterproof and a good conductor of heat. People from ancient times have found various ways to use the banana leaf in ways that exploit all these properties.

Close up of a banana leaf with water droplets after rain.
Banana plant leaves are waterproof. Image: © Junior Peres

The leaf is often used as a serving plate. Banana leaves make convenient, practical, and eco-friendly plates. They are broad and waterproof so nothing seeps through. Besides, they conduct heat well so the food stays warm longer. Best of all, there’s no washing up involved after the meal is done, which means less trouble and less wastage of water. It also means less water contamination.

After a meal, the banana leaf can just be added to the compost bin. Die-hard environmentalists use banana leaves as plates for everyday meals as well as family get-togethers and festivals. What better way to save water, time, and the environment.

The leaf can be used as wraps for cooking too. Foods wrapped in a piece of banana leaf and steamed, baked, grilled, or deep-fried are a specialty in many regions. The banana leaf locks in the moisture while also imparting its flavour and aroma to the food, resulting in a soft, moist dish with a unique refreshing twist.

The famous Parsi dish, ‘Patra ni Macchi’ consists of lighted marinated fish wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. Steaming rice, vegetables, and thin pork slivers wrapped in banana leaves is hugely popular in Vietnamese cuisine. Every region also has its own versions of savouries and desserts cooked in banana leaves.

Close up of cassava snack grilled in banana leaves.
A cassava snack grilled in banana leaves. Image: © Elivelton Nogueira

Banana leaves make great ‘containers’ for carrying packaged foods. The one hassle when carrying food while traveling is having to wash the container or throw out the plastic bag. One is inconvenient, the other is not environmentally-friendly. The banana leaf is an excellent option that resolves both problems – it is practical, hassle-free, and sustainable for a win-win solution.

The Flowers

They may not look edible, but those pretty, unique-looking banana flowers are edible and nutritious too. They are in fact quite common in many Southeast Asian cuisines and are used in soups, salads, stir fries, stews, and various curries.

In Thailand, banana flowers are added to several dishes including the flavourful local delicacy known as Hor Mok, which is a type of curry fish custard steamed in banana leaves. In South India, the flowers are the main ingredient in the very popular Poriyal curry, a spicy coconut curry.

Close up of a banana plant flower.
The banana flower is edible. Image: © Gerhard Janson

The unopened petals of banana flowers are called bracts. The bracts are starchy and have a slightly bitter flavour. They are often soaked in lemon juice before cooking to reduce the bitterness. In several cultures, the blossoms are dried and eaten during the rainy season when fish is scarce.

The banana flower is considered to have several health benefits and are used in many traditional Ayurveda preparations.

The Stem

The stem is another part of the banana plant that has multiple uses. The banana stem is edible and rich in nutrients, particularly vitamin B6 and potassium. It is known by different names in different regions and is cooked differently in different regions.

In some cuisines, it is served raw as part of a crunchy salad or cut into small cubes and stirred into a lightly spiced yoghurt. It is also added to curries and stir-fries. A word of advice: if you decide to buy the stem and cook it at home, it’s best to watch a video of how to prepare the stem the right way. I say this from experience, because the first time you attempt cutting a fresh banana stem, the amount of sap that oozes out of it can take you by surprise.

As you cut each roundel, more and more stringy, sticky sap just oozes out. You have to place the slices in cold water and use the back of a ladle to remove them before you can cook the stem. I underestimated this step and the preparation took far longer than I expected.

Decorative floats made from banana stems and flowers on a table at the Loy Krathong festival in Thailand.
Decorative banana stem floats on sale at the Loy Krathong festival. Note the dried banana stem sections in the plastic bag at the top right of the photo. Image: © David Astley

In Thailand, the stem of the banana plant takes centre stage in the famous Loy Krathong or Floating Festival. The stem is made up of a mesh of fibres that allow it to float. A few days before the Floating Festival, the cylindrical stems are cut and dried to be used as floats. On the day of the festival, people fill the cut stems with flowers and candles and let them float down the river. It’s a beautiful sight!

The sap of the banana stem is also used as a traditional hair treatment. Naturalists who avoid using manufactured cosmetics as much as possible, rub the sap of the stem into the hair and scalp which reputedly helps to reduce hair loss and enhance hair growth.

The Fruit

Of course, carts laden with bananas are a common sight in many countries. Bananas make a quick, cheap, and convenient snack when you need a quick burst of energy but don’t have time to stop and eat.

And they are a very nutritious snack. Bananas are rich in potassium and full of antioxidants and lots of soluble fibre. If you are looking to lose some weight, bananas are the perfect snack because they are filling but low in calories as well as being nutrient rich.

Close up of about a dozen hands of ripe bananas.
Hands of ripe bananas ready for eating: Image: © Christine Schmidt

You may be surprised to know though that there’s more than one way to eat the fruit. Bananas can be eaten at just about any stage, from completely raw, to under-ripe, perfectly-ripe, and overripe.

Raw bananas are used in a variety of dishes, from rich flavourful kofta curries to mildly flavored stews. They can also be cut into slices, salted, and deep fried or baked to make crispy banana chips. In some regions, unsalted baked, crispy banana slices are ground into a powder and stirred into nutrient-rich beverages.

Under-ripe bananas can be added to raitas and salads or lightly cooked and served as a side dish.

Perfectly ripe bananas are a treat by themselves and are also used to create a variety of wonderful desserts. They can be sliced and added to cereals for a more nutritious breakfast. Ice cream parlours use them to create the ever-popular banana split.

Slices of banana bread on a table in front of a glass of banana smoothie and some overripe bananas.
Most recipes for banana bread utilize overripe bananas. Image: © Jason Goh

Overripe bananas are often used in desserts and for baking banana bread. Adding overripe bananas to make desserts is an art form. Adding a lot gives the dish a rich flavour but it can also make it overly sweet. The key to creating the perfect banana dessert is using the right proportion of fruit and sugar so the result is flavourful but not too sweet.

The Peels

Yes, the banana peel is edible too. It’s not as widely used as the other parts of the plant but that’s mostly because the thought of biting into the peel doesn’t sound particularly appetizing. The peels of semi-ripe bananas are more commonly used in various ethnic dishes. Ripe banana peels are cut up and added to make nutritious fodder for cattle and pigs or they can be added to compost for the home garden

The Root

The bulbous root of the plant is used as a traditional dental medicine to soothe toothaches and mouth ulcers. To use it for these purposes, the root is cleaned well, boiled in salt water for several minutes and left overnight. The next day, the root is removed and the water is used as a mouthwash several times a day.

When you think of the many ways every part of the plant can be used, it’s impossible to think of the banana plant as anything but absolutely extraordinary!

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