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by Laura Martuscelli-Rodriguez

Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods

Spring Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(1) page(s): 19 and 20

Called jiao, banana is a general term embracing a number of species in the Genus Musa, family Musaceae. There is the common banana--Musa supientum which is known in Chinese as xiang jiao. The Japanese banana--Musa basjoo is called ba jiao, and the plantain--Musa paradisiaca known as che qian shu. There are many others, botanical classification complicated, even bewildering. They are confused by professionals and layman alike, and perhaps one reason the plantain is viewed by some as a sub-species of the banana and visa versa. To the consumer, the term banana is used for the fruit eaten raw, the plantain thought of as one used for cooking.

You may have seen what you thought was a banana tree that stood twenty-five feet high. Large it can be, but the trunk you saw is really not a tree but rather a stem that bears fruit, the fruit technically a berry. This may explain those little seed-like items inside. The stem or central growth area, succulent and juicy, is edible as are the fruits and the huge flower that emerges at the top. The leaves can be any size. Some are six feet long and two feet wide while others are quite a bit smaller. Up to fifteen of them spiral around the stem as do the hands of ten to twenty or more fruits arranged in bunches hanging together from that stem. Each stem can have fifteen hands so as the fruit grows, it gets very heavy and bends over, the hands pointing upwards. This stem dies back after flowering and fruiting. The following year another stem emerges making this a perennial fruit.

Long or short, oblong, cylindrical or blunt, curved, or straight, fruits in this family can be any color red, yellow, or green, even brown or black. The length of each one ranges from two to twelve inches, the width from the size of your finger to three inches in diameter. The differences depend more on species than growing conditions. Inside and outside, the peel and the fruit can be tough or tender and a wide range of colors from ivory to pink to yellow. Some are firm, some pungent, some even gummy. The mature fruits can stay firm or they can soften, they can be dry or sticky, even sweet or starchy. There are a myriad of types, shapes, and textures. Thus, many Chinese call the banana gan jiao, simply referring to it as broad-leafed plant.

Exactly when the banana came to China is not clear but believed to be before the Common Era. It is mentioned circa 200 CE in the works of Yang Fu and was known in the south of China about 110 BCE. Indications are that it was brought to the emperor in the capital at these times. Then the capital was Chang'an, which we now call Xian. Attempts were made to plant them at that time and since. They rarely survived beyond a season or two, and if they did, the plant never bore fruit.

It did not take long for this fruit to endear itself to the hearts of poets and peasants alike not just for fruit, but for this fruit’s use making cloth and paper. By the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 CE), some records show it well established in the south of China as an ornamental beautifying gardens where people admired the beautiful flowers. Others tell of the delights in tasting this wonderful fruit.

What is also confirmed, is that by the fourth century of the Common Era, the banana was popular fresh, dried, candied, and preserved in honey. In more recent centuries, this fruit is one of the most abundant fruits in Guangdong and nearby provinces. As the world’s fourth largest crop, it grows in just about every tropical and humid part of the world. Today, a few varieties are grown north of the Yangtze and while most flower, it is rare that one bears fruit; so in China's north they are still considered rare and exotic.

A common story most Chinese children can recite is about the Manchurian warlord, Wu Chunsheng who attended a banquet in Beijing. The story goes that when he took a banana from a bowl of fresh fruit at the end of a meal, he ate it peel and all. His host inconspicuously took one and peeled it. Not wanting to lose face, Wu took another and repeated what he had done saying, “I always eat these things with the peel on.”

Plantains are less common in China. Though not eaten raw, they are fried, baked, mashed, and these days even prepared in the microwave. Now known in China, this fruit can be used green and unripe, yellow when ripening, and when black and very ripe. The Chinese use plantains rarely but use bananas in all of these ways and more. They and westerners know that bananas and plantains have lots of carbohydrates, considerable water, some vitamin C and B6, and very little protein. The banana is a good source of potassium, the plantain a fair source of vitamin A. Both are consumed for taste and nutrients. The Chinese also value several varieties of banana as herbal healers. They are considered cooling. They also use them as a sacrificial fruit and can be found on some altars.

In the herbal realm, the Chinese believe that the Japanese variety lubricates the intestine and lowers blood pressure. They recommend it for babies, the elderly, and those convalescing from a long illness but specifically advise those with stomach ulcers to avoid this fruit. For xiang jiao or the common banana, the recommendation differs somewhat. It is used to cool a fever, relieving hypertension, and when taken before bedtime, to relieve constipation. They also recommend it as a cure for those who suffer from hangovers. The specifics are to use four tablespoons of the banana skin and boil it in water until cooked through. The Chinese not only use the fruit as food and the skin for health concoctions, they also eat the sprouts of new plants. The leaves are used to wrap foods for steaming.

Some Chinese in the south ferment the pulp into vinegar and use small bananas in herbal wines and other decoctions. But most are eaten raw. There are several popular ways to cook bananas. Most common, and to those of Cantonese and Taiwanese heritage, is their use cooked and as a sweet at a meal. This method is popular in Chinese restaurants outside of China and called Candied Bananas. The technique is to batter, then fry them. After removing from the hot oil, they are dipped into some melted sugar or maltose and immediately put into ice water, removed, and served. The texture of cold crunch on the outside and hot soft interior is tantalizing.

I was advised that this dish was served to the editor twice in China, once was at the Summer Palace, the other time at a restaurant in Beihai Park in Beijing. She reported that they were made from small firm bananas and that the banana itself was starchier than similar banana dishes in the United States. Here are three ways to enjoy cooking bananas, Chinese style.
Laura Martuscelli-Rodriguez obtained her Bachelor of Science degree from SUNY-Oneonta and is working on a Masters Degree at a CUNY school while doing a Dietetic Internship. In her free time, she dines at various restaurants, Asian to Italian, experiencing cuisines about which she loves to read, research, and eat.
Banana Pancakes
5 Tablespoons flour
1/4 cup milk
2 ripe bananas, peeled and mashed
1 egg, beaten
2 Tablespoons sugar
4 Tablespoons melted butter
1. Mix flour and milk, then add mashed bananas, the beaten egg and the sugar and mix well.
2. Heat wok or fry pan and add one quarter of the butter.
3. Using a quarter-cup measure, fill it with batter and pour it into the pan. Then pour in another quarter of a cup of batter to make two pancakes. Fry both until golden, then turn them over and fry on the other side until golden; then remove and put them on a pre-warmed plate. Repeat until all batter is used.
Banana-shrimp Sandwiches
3 almost ripe bananas, peeled
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined, then minced
2 water chestnuts, minced fine
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
salt and pepper, to taste
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup corn oil
1. Slice bananas on an angle into one inch slices. Then cut each slice in half but keep them together as two angled slices.
2. Mix shrimp and water chestnuts and take about a half tablespoon and use as filling between two banana slices.
3. Lightly dust both sides of the sandwich with cornstarch and shake a dash of salt and pepper on one side only.
4. Dip sandwich is egg and deep fry until lightly brown. Drain and set on paper towel for one minute then put on a serving platter. Repeat until all are fried, then serve.
Shrimp Surprise
1 banana
1/4 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
dash salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
4 beancurd sheets
1/2 cup cornstarch mixed with three to four tablespoons of water
1 cup oil, for deep frying
1. Peel and cut banana into three even-sized pieces. Cut each piece in quarters, first cutting them in half the long way, then cut each in half the long way again. You should have twelve stick-shaped pieces.
2. Cut each shrimp in half the long way, then mix them with the salt, sugar, and cornstarch. Set them aside to marinate for fifteen minutes.
3. Soak beancurd sheets in boiling water for ten minutes, drain and pat dry with paper towels. Then cut them into pieces, each about four inches square.
4. Stir the cornstarch water mixture. Then roll one piece of shrimp and one piece of banana in it, as you would roll an egg roll, point of the skin facing you, sides turned in, then rolled completely. Put a dash of the cornstarch mixture on the point to seal it.
5. Heat oil. Dip half the shrimp rolls in the batter and fry them until crispy, about two minutes. Drain them on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining rolls. When all are drained, serve.
Note: They can be sprinkled with confectionary sugar, if desired.

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