Recently, on a trip to Goa on our anniversary, at a seaside hilly resort called Aldeia de Goa, nesting in my friend Vasu’s house, I was struck by a nostalgia wave when I spotted what was a plaintain sapling in her garden. It stood there in all its glory, battling the sea breeze, displaying its miniature fruit already. Hmmm, I thought, you can take a south Indian to Goa, but you can never take the plaintain (used interchangeably with banana) out of a south Indian, I figured. Trust the banana to give you your daily dose of calcium and potassium, provide instant energy, and always be accessible to your wallet, recession or no recession. You can add it to milk-shakes, porridge, muesli, and start off your day on a energy-high. You can rely on it any time of the day to abate the sugar low—its form lends to the most hygienic consumption—no washing or chopping required, hence it suffers minimum damage by human hands.
Like all self-respecting Dravidians, I have done my fair share of the plaintain cuisine, and continue to do so when I visit the mother or she visits me (it’s a bit high maintenance for my patience levels currently, when my pregnancy-laden hunger pangs override the desire to work too hard to make a meal happen). But one childhood favourite which she often makes for me even now is the dry plaintain and aubergine in tamarind gravy. Yum!
It is true. Every part of the plant is consumed—the leaves are exotic receptacles for food (even though they might now be used to line silver thalis and whatnot). The fruit is eaten ripe and raw, the flowers (vazhapu) made into cutlets, pitlai, poduthuval and sambar, and the pseudo stem made into pachadi or a poduthuval.
Dad was the resident expert at growing them in our backyard when we were kids (he claimed we had nine varieties, although I couldn’t really tell the difference or the finer points of each). All we knew that each weekend, he spent hours in the backyard, figuring out innovative home-grown fertilizers to make his plaintain paradise thrive.
While raw, skinning, chopping, cooking of the plaintain is a bit elaborate and requires a certain knack and finesse. There are also certain anti-staining precautions to be taken, especially as the juices that exude are not particularly discerning about leaving a mark on your clothes or body parts. And if you are amongst the microscopic populace that can skin, detangle and chop the plaintain pseudostem to tiny bits, each a perfect cube, you are king.
“Give us this day our plaintain chips” was a regular childhood stunt when the stuff on offer at the dinner table didn’t have enough sex appeal, and had to be jazzed up with the regular, chilli or pepper laden variants. Nowadays I spot the ‘microwaved’ or ‘non-fried’ variants at super markets, and frankly, I think it’s a scam. What are plaintain chips if not fried in coconut oil? There’s a guy close to our office, next to the Sitladevi temple who used to make them every day for years, but on my last visit, I couldn’t spot him. Informants on his whereabouts will be suitably rewarded.
Banana pseudo stem (Vazhatandu) pachadi
A foot-long banana pseudostem
One cup buttermilk, diluted
Juice of a small ball of tamarind (less than the size of a lemon)
Haldi, hing, jaggery, salt to taste
For the gravy:
Green chilli, rai, coconut, one teaspoonful of raw rice
Chop the pseudostem into fine bits. (This is the trickiest part, as it involves slicing into ½ inch thick rounds, detangling the threads that connect them to one another using a spiral action of your finger, and then piling up the sliced rounds and chopping them into tiny squares)
Soak the chopped pseudostem in a bowl of very dilute buttermilk to retain its whiteness (else it tends to darken)
Drain the pseudostem off the buttermilk and cook in small amount of water with haldi, salt and some tamarind juice.
Grind together one green chilli, one teaspoon mustard, one teaspoon washed rice and add the paste to the cooked mixture. Add a pinch of hing and a piece of jaggery. Bring to boil.
Temper with spluttered mustard seeds and a red chilli.