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Banana & Tarte Tartin

The banana is without a doubt my favourite plant we have growing in our home garden. We absolutely love their fruit, we eat their flower, we use their leaves, and even their stem! Aren’t they just the epitome of The Giving Tree? There are plenty of exotic varieties out there but my mum has been growing the same dwarf Cavendish for more than a decade. It is a stout plant that puts out large heavy bunches, which most of us know from the supermarkets.

A distant relative of gingers and bird-of-paradise flowers, the banana is actually a herb (rather than a tree) because it does not have woody tissues and the aerial parts of the mother plant dies down to the ground after each growing season. Their fleshy trunks, considered pseudostems, consist of leaf stalks wrapped around each other. New leaves are formed by the apical meristem on the rhizome (below ground) and push up through the middle of the pseudostem. They emerge from the centre of the crown over time as rolled cylinders aka cigar leaves.

At the base of the banana plant, underground, is a big rhizome called the corm. The corm has many growing points which break the surface as new suckers (baby banana plants). Word on the street is that you get bigger fruit if you take off unwanted suckers. We usually remove or transplant them, leaving only the best one or two in position to replace the mother plant.

Growing happy banana plants is a lot easier than you think! All you need are:

Fertile soil

Whether you are growing them in the ground or in large pots, bananas are heavy feeders and appreciate soil rich in nitrogen and potassium. Think chicken manure, homemade compost, and lots of mulch. Like, LOTS. Just keep piling it on. Once our plants start fruiting, we focus on feeding them a steady diet of potassium by scattering dried banana peels and seaweed around their base. Fertilize close to the trunk as bananas don’t have big root systems.


Warmth and moisture

Bananas love sun and heat, and require regular watering to sustain their large leaves and produce sweet tasty fruit. They are susceptible to root rot and don’t like continually wet soil, so it is best to water them deeply every two to three days if it hasn’t rained.

A sucker

The best way to start is with a sucker. Know of someone who grows bananas? Make them your friend with benef – I mean, bananas! Every banana plant produces more suckers than one actually needs, so people usually have plenty to give away.


Only take suckers from vigorous banana plants. Choose suckers with small, spear shaped leaves NOT the pretty ones with the big, round leaves. This is because a sucker that is still fed by the mother plant does not need to do much photosynthesis, thus doesn’t need to produce big leaves yet. A sucker that is well looked after by the mother plant will produce better fruit and be stronger than one that’s had to struggle on its own.

Left: Sucker A small corm, big leaves, not so ideal; Right: Sucker B – big corm, small leaves, ideal


Use a sharp shovel to remove suckers from the main plant. Cut downwards, through the corm, between the mature plant and the sucker. Getting a good chunk of corm and many roots with it is not an easy job. Chop the top off the sucker to reduce evaporation while you transplant it and while it settles into its new home.

Ideally you want a sucker about 1m high, but we always dig them out when they are much smaller as they tend to be a bit easier to get out of the ground. The disadvantages of starting with smaller suckers are that they will take longer to bear fruit and the first banana bunch will typically be smaller.

First picture: Sucker B, day of transplant (spot it near the yellowing mulch); Second picture: Sucker B, three weeks after transplant


After about five months, a sucker reaches maturity and is ready to produce fruit. The inflorescence emerges from the centre of the crown and begins its descent. It will reach its final position in a couple of days and stay in this position for the next three to four months as the fruits fatten and ripens.

Bracts lift to expose the female flowers which will develop into a hand of fruit. Once all hands are developed, we cut the blossom off so that the plant puts all its energy into growing big bananas.

The blossom (or heart) is a popular ulam, traditionally used in south-east Asian and Indian dishes. Its chunky, flaky texture makes it an ideal substitute for fish. Preparing the blossom can be a rather tedious and messy process. Its sap leaves a stubborn stain on clothing and fingers, so get ready to get dirty.


Steps

1. Peel bracts off.


2. Remove yellow florets on the underside of bracts and immediately soak in acidic (vinegar) water to avoid discoloration and bitterness.

3. Peel off the scale-like outermost petal and pluck out the matchstick-shaped pistil (tough and unpleasant tasting) in each floret.

4. Soak cleaned florets in acidic water immediately, for several hours or overnight. Then rinse in cold water, drain, and squeeze out excess water. Finally, they are ready for use. You can cook them in curries or soups, or use them in a simple stir-fry. They can also be eaten raw in salads.

Banana bunches become very heavy over time and eventually need a little help being propped up. We usually fix a couple of pieces of wood against the stem to straighten it, but couldn’t find any wood around the house that day and had to make do with using a stool to help support the weight of this bunch.

Bananas are ready to be picked when they look well-rounded and the little flowers at the end are dry. You can harvest the top hands first or just cut the whole bunch off and hang it somewhere inside to protect them from birds and thieves. Once they start ripening, they ripen quickly and all at once – so be prepared for a banana bonanza!

After the fruit is harvested, the rest of the plant will die quickly. You can either cut it to the ground and throw on some chicken manure and let the next sucker grow while you process the mother plant and all her bananas or have a go at harvesting banana stem juice.

All you need to do is cut the top half of your plant off and get carving. The goal is to carve out the inner bit of the stem to create a bowl for the juice to pool. Then cover with a piece of muslin or cheese cloth and fasten with a string. (This ‘string’ was made from fibres of the banana stem!)

If your banana tree is growing on good land, the juice from the inner core of a tender banana stem can help reduce and regulate blood pressure, treat diabetes, cleanse the urinary tract, help regulate the acidity level in our body, and help prevent kidney stones. My brother-in-law, an environmental consultant, was very against us drinking the juice we collected because according to him our ground in Singapore is full of nasty stuff that a banana tree ain’t gonna be able to filter. We collected enough juice to fill an entire jar in just one day! We drank it and live to tell the tale.

The outer stem can be dried and its fibre shredded to make ‘string’ or processed more finely to make fabric – a popular practice in the Philippines.

Their big leaves make great plates for eating on (kamayan dinner!) and eco-friendly food packaging. Eating on banana leaves is a custom that dates back thousands of years and its benefits are still relevant today. Banana leaves are packed with polyphenols (natural antioxidants). While banana leaves are not easy to digest if eaten directly, our food absorbs the polyphenols from the leaves so that we get the benefits. They are also believed to have anti-bacterial properties that kill germs in our food.

Banana leaves are also a valuable source of mulch for our garden. Instead of using black plastic sheets to kill off weeds and retain soil moisture, we use banana leaves which break down and also help amend our heavy clay soils with organic matter over time.

When it comes to the fruit, the best way to enjoy them in my opinion is as they are. But Man liketh to tinker, to maketh the perfectly healthy and nutritious snack that Nature has bestowed on us into something even better. So if you have 45 minutes to kill and are in the mood for sin, here’s a simple recipe for a decadent banana tarte Tartin best had fresh from the oven.


Ingredients (makes 1 tart, feeds 5 people)

4 bananas (firm, just about to ripen), sliced into 2cm-thick pieces

100g golden caster sugar (only use refined granulated sugar)

75g butter

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch of sea salt

1 orange, zested (nice to have but not necessary)

1 sheet of puff pastry

Crème fraîche or ice cream

Steps

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C.

2. Melt sugar and butter together on a low heat, ideally in a dish that can go on the stove and in the oven. Once the sugar has melted, turn up the heat and bubble until it turns a deep amber colour. Stay focused as just a few seconds can mean the difference between perfect and ruined.


3. If the butter separates from the caramel, take the pan off the heat and add 1 tablespoon of warm water, stirring until the butter emulsifies again. Take care and maybe wear mitts as there might be some sputtering.

3. Arrange banana pieces in the caramel, then sprinkle a pinch of sea salt, cinnamon, and some orange zest over.

4. Get a sheet of puff pastry out from the freezer and lay it on top of the bananas. Tuck the edges down inside the tin.


5. Bake for 30 minutes, or until puffed and golden brown.


6. Leave tart to cool in the dish for 5 minutes, then carefully turn it out onto a large plate. Wear mitts as the hot caramel might splash. Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche. We could only find ice cream at the shop and it was like diabetes on a plate. (I’m not big on overly sweet stuff at the moment.)

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