The Name of the World's Most Consumed Fruit Comes from Arabic
By Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Likely, the first fruit a child gets to know is the much-consumed banana. A wholesome and delicious treat at any time of the day, it is one of nature’s finest gifts to man. Readily available and inexpensive, it is a staple of tropical countries and found year-round on the shelves of every food market in Europe and North America. The nutritional value of this splendid fruit makes it an ideal in-between-meal snack for children – a great lunch box standby.
The best-known fruit of our time, it has been with us since the dawn of civilization and is believed to be one of mankind’s earliest cultivated fruits. Its history is closely woven with legends and mythology. In the medieval world, many believed that the serpent that tempted Eve hid in a bunch of bananas. Hence, they labeled it ‘Fruit or Apple of Paradise’ and, at times ‘Adam’s Fig’. In Hindu lore, it was the favored food of the gurus (sages), giving us its scientific name musa sapietum (fruit of the wise men).
In the field of sexual literature, the banana has had an important place. Due to its erotic appearance, through the ages, writers have considered it a true love food. This fruit is included in Indian offerings to their fertility gods and in a dozen languages, it is a synonym for the male organ. According to R. Hendrickson in Lewd Food, ‘I had a banana with Lady Diana’ was, from the beginning of the century up until about 1930, English slang for intercourse.
Historically, the home of bananas is thought to be the Indian sub-continent from where the Arabs introduced their cultivation into the Mediterranean basin and Africa. The name by which they are known in English was taken from black Africa and is probably derived from the Arabic banan (fingers). In later centuries, the Portuguese carried them to the Canary Islands from where the Spaniards introduced them into the New World. Here, they flourished. Today, the Caribbean and Central and South America account for more than 80% of the world’s yearly production of some 50 billion bananas.
There are about 300 species of bananas cultivated throughout the tropical world. In order to thrive, bananas need well-drained soil and a hot, humid climate. They can grow from seeds, but generally, they are started from shoots that bud from the underground stems of older plants. In about a year, from planting to the time of reaping, some varieties grow up to 12 m (40 ft) high with leaves from 2 to 4 m (6 to 12 ft), spread out from the top. The plants are cultivated with a great deal of care. The excessive shoots or suckers are continually pruned. After harvesting, the trees are cut down in preparation for the next year’s crop.
The fruit grows in large bunches of 200 to 300 bananas and weighs 14 to 59 kg (30 to 130 lb) is always picked when very green. Bananas are one of the few fruits which do not improve in flavor by ripening on the tree. For European and North American markets, the unripe bananas are exported in temperature controlled ships or vehicles to prevent ripening. They are then placed in heated warehouses until ready for distribution to food outlets.
For consumers, the best time to buy bananas is when the body is a bright attractive yellow, but the tip is still green. In North America, these are usually found under the brand names, Chiquita and Dole. To a much lesser extent, one can find, at times, red-colored and small fig or ladyfinger types – much esteemed in the tropics. Also, in the Caribbean and other tropical markets, plantains, members of the banana family, not really bananas, are often featured.
Top quality bananas should be bought when they appear firm, fresh and plump. After being kept in the home for about two days, they will become solid yellow, flecked with dark specks – in prime condition for eating. If refrigerated at this stage, they will keep their top texture for a few more days. One must avoid the purchase of bananas that are dull-yellow with a smoky appearance since they have been cold-damaged.
Bananas, besides having excellent flavor and going well with many foods, are very nourishing. As they ripen, enzymes convert their large amount of starch – about 20% – into easily digestible natural sugars – sucrose, fructose, and glucose, all of which the body uses. They are rich in fiber, potassium and vitamins A, B, and C, and contain calcium, fat, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and protein. Each 100 g (3.5 oz) of their creamy white edible flesh include 100 nutritious calories – higher than most fresh fruits. When dried, they contain 285 calories per 100 g, twice that of meat.
When compared it to an apple, a banana has four times the protein, twice the carbohydrates, three times the phosphorus, five times the vitamin A and iron, and twice the other vitamins and minerals. Hence, it is better to say, not an apple, but ‘A banana a day keeps the doctor away!’
Of great nutritional value to millions of people throughout the world, bananas are usually the first fruit a baby tastes remaining the most easily digested and healthy natural food all through life until advanced age. They are recommended as a number one fruit athletes and for low fat and low sodium diets, and are the only raw fruit ideal for a low remedy for many ills, contain three natural sugars – sucrose, fructose, and glucose. These combined with a high fiber content give a substantial boost of energy and help regulate normal bowel action, relax and aid in calming the nervous system. As well, the vitamin B6 bananas contain, regulates blood glucose levels, which can affect a person’s mood. High in iron, bananas can stimulate the production of hemoglobin and so helps in cases of anemia.
Extremely high in potassium yet low in salt, it has the ability to reduce stress, make one alert and reduce the risk of high blood pressure and strokes. As well the consumption of bananas aids in curing hangovers; easing heartburn, morning sickness, hemorrhoids and mosquito bites, and neutralizing over-acidity by coating the lining of the stomach. In addition, the inner surface of the peel can be applied to boils and burns as a natural method of healing. According to an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, eating bananas as part of a regular diet can cut the risk of death by strokes by as much as 40%.
Easy to peel, prepare and eat, bananas can be baked, canned, and cooked with other food. They are also preserved by drying and utilized in a number of industrially prepared foods, but when processed in this way they lose their vitamin C. However, the most popular and tastiest method is to simply peel and eat them raw. Plantains, a type of large un-sweet banana and a staple in the tropics, cannot be eaten raw but must be baked, broiled or fried.
Excellent for all types of desserts, bananas go well with cream, milk, and sugar. They can be sliced over breakfast cereals, utilized in puddings and gelatine sweets, and puréed as an after meal treat. Also, they are an excellent ingredient in fruit salads, as a condiment in sweet pickles, and can be employed with all types of bakery and soda fountain products. It is said that in whatever way bananas are eaten, for nutrition, economy and good taste, they are by far one of the top food buys.
Being one of the best-known fruits by the general public, they are widely sold and often featured in supermarkets at low prices as enticements to customers. Their delicious pulp, which has been enjoyed from the cradle to the grave for centuries, makes them one of nature’s greatest gifts to mankind.