I recently returned from a trip across southern India, taking in the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. This was my first trip to India, and after my visit I now understand how difficult it is to imagine or describe this amazing country to those who haven’t been.
Apart from the wonderful Indian people, one of the stand-out things for me was the quality of the fresh fruit and vegetables we encountered everywhere we went. A particular favourite was the Nanjangud banana, a tiny, delicious fruit about the length of a human thumb. It is native to the state of Karnataka, growing mostly around the city of Mysuru (previously Mysore).
It is one of around a thousand varieties of banana growing across the world, which begs the question why we don’t see different varieties for sale here in the UK.
That question has a single word answer: monoculture.
The world’s most “popular” variety of banana – the one found in every supermarket across the UK – is called Cavendish.
But it wasn’t always so.
Up until the 1960s, the world’s most popular banana variety was called Gros Michel, by all accounts a more tasty variety than Cavendish. It proved so popular that large swathes of south American rainforest were converted into enormous monoculture plantations growing only Gros Michel bananas. And then a deadly fungal virus called Panama disease struck, very quickly wiping out the Gros Michel variety in a matter of a few years.
In the ensuing collapse of the banana export market, Cavendish, a variety developed in the UK, was found to be resistant to Panama disease and so it quickly replaced Gros Michel and is now grown in those same vast monoculture plantations.
But recently a new strain of Panama disease, called TR4, has emerged, and this time Cavendish has not proved resistant. Fungicidal chemical treatments have proved futile against this virulent disease, meaning the best hope for saving the world’s banana crops is once again to identify disease-resistant strains.
And that is the problem. Deliberately cultivating one crop variety to the exclusion of others has led to genetic uniformity, which in turn diminishes the chances of finding disease-resistant strains.
Even the lovely Nanganjud banana has been devastated by Panama disease, but here there may yet be a happy ending. The University of Bangalore has stepped in at the eleventh hour to mount a rescue mission. Firstly, disease resistant plants growing in the fields of Karnataka have been identified, collected and replicated. Karnatakan farmers have then been helped to plant out these disease-resistant banana saplings on their fields with support from the university and encouragement from the government in the form of subsidies.
Today the disease-resistant strain of this banana is grown in a tiny area, amounting to just a few acres, but perhaps the University’s intervention will help ensure its survival.
The lesson here is clear. We should cherish and nurture all of the world’s varieties of fruit and vegetables and with them the genetic diversity that improves the chances of survival when disease or disaster strikes.
This recipe represents my attempt to replicate the flavours of a rather lovely sweet I tried in Kerala. Called bonda, it is a fried dumpling which has a texture and flavour rather like a light banana cake. It is seriously delicious served alongside a cup of hot chai.
Jaggery is an unrefined sugar made from sugarcane without the separation of molasses and crystals. If you can’t source jaggery use coconut sugar or raw brown sugar.
Keralan-style banana fritters
2-3 small ripe bananas
75 g jaggery
100 g organic wholewheat flour
40 g organic coconut flour
60 ml water
½-1 tsp ground cardamom, depending on taste
pinch sea salt
pinch baking powder
groundnut oil, for frying.
1. In a bowl, mix together the wholemeal and coconut flours, the sea salt, baking powder and cardamom.
2. Mash the bananas. Place the jaggery and water in a saucepan over a low heat. Stir until the jaggery has been dissolved. Leave to cool for five minutes then pour into the flour mixture along with the mashed banana and stir into a smooth dough. Form into walnut-sized balls, each around 30 g in weight.
3. Pour groundnut oil into a suitable pan to a depth of 4cm. Place over a high heat. Once the oil is hot, carefully lower a few of the bonda into it (you will need to cook them in a couple of batches to avoid crowding the pan and lowering the oil temperature). Use a slotted spoon to turn the bonda so that they colour all over. They are ready after 2-3 minutes or as soon as they have a rich, dark golden colour.
4. Drain on kitchen paper before serving. They can be eaten warm or cold.
Categories: dairy free, vegan
Tags: fungicides, monoculture
Great recipe, gripping tale – I love Kerala myself.
Looks tasty 🙂
Yay for genetic diversity. Long may it thrive.
This reminds me that is has been a long time since I had a jaggery cone in my house–I seem to have switched to organic coconut sugar, which comes from the sap of the coconut tree and is sweet and tasty and low calorie, interestingly–18 calories per serving, with 5 grams of sugars in that. This recipe looks great and makes me want Indian food now!
What an interesting lesson – I certainly did not know or had partly forgotten about the Panama disease! In Australia the supermarkets basically divide their sales twixt Cavendish and the beloved much smaller lady-fingers, more expensive but eagerly sought! Actually looked up Mr Google on this and articles still speak of some 500 different kinds – perhaps not profitable for the general trade in Western countries? Don’t normally deep-fry or even much shallow-fry but these bonda would be addictive 🙂 ! Kerala: lucky you: I have been trying to get there for years for the ultimate spice tour !!!
These look really good!
These fritters look so good! what an incredible recipe! my wife is vegan so I am making these for her……of course I am jumping in on these too!!!!….thank you for the recipe 🙂
This tiny Sth India bananas are the sweetest I have ever tasted, but I didn’t try bonda. Most Indian sweets are what too sweet for my palate but these sound good. India gets under your skin Steve, it will call you back
Hahaha, you’re right Sandra: I would love to return 🙂
So happy you have made it to India at long last especially the south is so beautiful for food enthusiasts I have spent a lot of time in India over the past 30 years especially southern India and can’t appreciate your newly found passion! I just wanted to let you know that this latest blog of these delightful little morsels inspired me to buy my husband a valentine gift something he’s been after for years and very nice deep fat fryer!!🤣 so I shall be looking forward to the sweet banana morsels shortly hopefully!
Can’t sd read CAN!!!
Ps …. Steve did you by chance try the most delectable but quite rare Red Banana whilst you were there? Our Driver used to know a certain stall that sold them in Fort Kochi I think they used to call them the Ayurveda banana because of the health giving qualities but amazing taste!
Hi Lesley. I did come across red bananas growing in Kerala and also just across the border in Tamil Nadu. I believe they are called Chenkadali locally. They are a striking, lovely colour but sadly I didn’t get to try any. I think I may have to have to go back to remedy that oversight 🙂. Steve