Monday, May 12, 2008

The thing about bananas

The internet seems to be a little passive-aggressive in Kathmandu today, especially about uploading pictures, so instead of a few pictures of the town of Sakhu, I'm going to talk about bananas.

Yes, bananas.

I've had a thing against the bananas of San Francisco for a while: namely, that I don't really like them. That I dislike them would be too strong a term, however--it's more that bananas at home are a food you eat without tasting, a food you eat for convenience and a lack of disagreeability, a food that's not too bitter, not too sweet, not too soft or too hard, not to mealy, not to acidic, and most of all not too present. And while these bananas may indeed be a sort of gustatory zen riddle, I prefer my tastebuds to know a fuller range of experience.

Indeed, the state at which most Americans, in my experience, eat their bananas bears out this rather harsh opinion: our bananas are large and firm in their peels, bought while green and eaten just as they turn yellow. Brown spots mean that the bananas are going bad--indeed, it's always seemed that Americans freeze the bananas the second day after brown spots appear, all the better for banana bread. In the freezer, of course, the banana peels go totally brown, and the inner fruit discolors like an apple or potato left peeled too long.

The thing about these bananas is that, in comparison to their potential, they are terrible. Terrible, awful, I would even go so far as to say an abomination. I don't know if there's a Hindu god of bananas--there are so many Hindu gods that I think there must have to be--but if so, I suspect we've displeased him enough that he's cursed us to think that our bananas are somehow worth eating. Which they are, except in times of starvation, not.

Let me better explain: Here in Nepal, the only way I can make a banana taste like the bananas at home is to find one totally green, a little oversized and over-firm, with a skin much too thick, and eat it. This is something I have to work at--I did it yesterday just for kicks1, but I had to go three different places just to find a banana awful enough that it would taste--shudder--"normal," and even then the vendor, a stocky man in a dirty white Nepal baseball cap who tried to charge me, initially, 75 rupees for 6 bananas (going rate is 20 or so) told me that I didn't want that one. Yes: he would charge me triple the normal price, but at least at first didn't want to sell me his worst piece of merchandise. Then he shrugged and said ok.

Let me also explain, as best I can, what it is that I've missed out on for the past quarter-century or so. Bananas here, most notably, are creamy and most of all rich, with a sweetness that only appears in the moment or two after you begin to taste them. The sweetness, perfectly balanced, lingers in the mid-front of your mouth, and then, as you swallow, there's the slightest sweep of fibrous bitterness at the back of your tongue--but as soon as you swallow, it's gone.

That the most distinctive taste of a banana is umami--and that that's something of a surprise--is notable mostly because I would never have described a banana that way before. If pressed, I think I would previously have described the slightly woody, back-of-the-throat sensation that stays with you for a few minutes after you've eaten an American banana. In fact, this is the taste of an unripe banana, at least here in Nepal. It's similar to that of a ripe plantain, in location if nothing else, but again we eat plantains when they are brown and ripened, and a plantain has a that overriding taste of the acids in the banana at the roof of your mouth--nor does it linger like that American banana taste.

So what to do? I guess it depends on perspective. Eat bananas when actually brown, of course--and I have a suspicion that with bananas, like with zucchini, smaller is actually more tasty. And you can't get locally grown bananas, I don't think, in San Francisco anyway, which is another good reason not to buy them.

But really, they're just not so good, so don't buy them. Actually, they're quite bad. Seriously.


1 Ok, not so much for kicks as for research for this, but still.

No comments: