If you have ever been to Puerto Rico or one of those very Caribbean/tropical countries, you might have seen bunches of green fruit hanging from the banana tree. More often than not, they would turn out to be the raw version of banana. If you wait a little longer and make sure the monkeys and birds don’t bite into them, these green beauties will one day turn into luscious yellow bananas that you can’t wait to take home and bake into a banana nut bread or something as exotic.
To me, and many people from the tropics would agree, the best thing about banana is its raw form (though the Mexican fried ripe plantain is something I love to eat!). In Puerto Rico, you might have tasted two wonderful dishes called Mofongo and Trifongo, which are primarily made from pounded raw bananas with pork or bacon. The meatless Mofongo is the closest you can get to a vegetarian dish in PR so the vegetarians in our group practically lived on it for all the four days when we visited the territory this summer. We had nothing to complain about because each restaurant had its own version which came with dipping sauce with ingredients ranging from pineapples to mayonnaise.
India is no different while dealing with plantains. We love it and use it extensively, especially in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, the various versions of raw plantain is fried into chips, cooked, mashed and moulded into delicious sides. In Tamil Nadu, we make Kootu (ah, my saving grace), curry with freshly ground spices, sautes and even Sambar out of the raw banana. At home, Vazhakkai, as we call it in Tamil, is a special entity. The diabetics stay away from it due to its high sugar content. Hence, my mother would make it specially for my sister and me. Diabetes didn’t fray my dad’s passion for making chips from this beautiful vegetable. So on a few rare Sundays, we would find him frying huge batches of perfectly mandolined slices of plantain in a huge Kadai of oil that he would lovingly season with salt, cayenne pepper powder and asafoetida. Sigh…
Last night, I made the simplest of all dishes with this beautiful vegetable. The process was not very pretty so I decided to stay away from clicking pictures. The end product was this wonderful, mildly sweet, perfectly spiced, crunchy outside but soft inside dish I had planned to pair with rice but we ate without any accompaniment. Enjoy!
Vazhakkai Crunchy Curry
Four medium-sized Raw plantains (You can find this in any multi-ethnic grocery store or the Indian store)
Two Tbsp gram or all-purpose flour
One Tbsp cornmeal
Half tsp cayenne pepper powder
A pinch asafoetida (optional) You could replace all the spices with curry powder and salt
One tsp turmeric powder
One tsp salt
Two Tbsp oil
Curry leaves (optional)
Cut the plantains in half and boil them in hot water for 11 minutes. When done and cool enough to handle, peal the skin like you would a banana and cut into thin rounds. For the marinade, mix the flour, cornmeal and the spices together with a few drops of water to make a thick, dry crumble. Add the plantain pieces to this mixture and make sure they are all well-coated.
Heat the oil in a pan, add the cumin seeds and the curry leaves. When they turn golden brown, add the marinaded plantains and any powder left in the container to the pan. Don’t saute. Turn the heat to medium and let them fry. You might be tempted to turn them just once but fight it. Turn the pieces after five minutes and you will understand why patience is a virtue. The sugar in the plantains would have caramelized and turned the curry golden. Let it go for ten minutes on the other side. Once done, the plantain pieces would have turned crisp, soft, perfectly cooked and other things I mentioned earlier. You can eat it just like that.
This can be served as a starter too. It can be grilled (only cut the plantain length-wise into thin pieces) and give it a pineapple glaze for a very tropical feel. First, you need to go find plantains to cook. Chop, chop!
Ps: the only banana tree I spotted in USA was in NOLA. I am sure there are many out there. I just need to keep my eyes open.