Sometimes the answers to difficult challenges can lie in our own backyards—and, for some, quite literally. This thought crossed my mind as I concurrently pondered the sorry state of the world—and the gluai hom banana in my hand. Is it possible this humble fruit and its plant could save us from ourselves?
First of all, it’s worth taking a step back to understand what a banana really is. A banana ‘tree’ is not a tree at all—but rather an overgrown herbaceous flowering plant. The ‘trunk’ of the plant is merely a pseudo-stem comprising bundles of leaves—the real perennial corm lying obscured underground. The fleshy yellow crescent we know as the banana is its fruit.
Despite its ubiquity in South America and Africa, the native home of musa acuminata is actually right here in Southeast Asia. Thailand alone boasts 28 different species. There exists a multitude of heirloom varieties—bearing such intriguing names as niew jorakay (‘alligator’s fingers’)—and my personal favourite, p’hama haek kuk (‘Burmese-escaping-from-prison’).* Already, it’s clear that bananas are not quite as boring as we thought.
So, how might bananas help save the world? First by providing us with an easily-renewable source of delicious physical sustenance. Some processing, banana can further be transformed into wine, vinegar and flour. The banana flower, or hua plee, can also be blanched or boiled and enjoyed in dishes such as the classic pad thai, or gaeng liang—a hearty vegetable soup. The stem makes for a great spicy-sour salad—while leaves can be used to impart aroma in steamed and grilled dishes.
Bananas may also be used as a nutritive and medicine. Being high in vitamins A and C, potassium, and carbohydrates, the ripe fruits are useful for addressing emaciation and wasting diseases. The unripe banana is also traditionally used to treat diarrhoea and peptic ulcers.
The banana plant can offer us with renewable food—and environmentally-friendly packaging. Its leaves and stems have long been traditionally used as plates, trays and containers. The roots can be converted into mulch, and the fibres woven into multi-purpose twine.
Finally, it can support our spiritual and emotional needs. Many Thai spiritual traditions and festivals involve the intricate folding of banana leaves as offerings. Banana stems were an endless source of play for Thai children.
In a world that seems to be eternally seeking complex technologies to address the problems of the human condition, staring deep into this banana—I can’t help but think the answer lies in something much simpler.
*A prisoner of Burmese descent escaped from prison, surviving only by eating lots of such bananas. Source: Dr Kanit Muntarbhorn, ‘A Food World: Q&As (Gastronomy in Asia–IV), 2016.