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.