Bananas are believed to have originated up to 10,000 years ago and some scientists believe they may have been the world’s first fruit.
The first bananas are thought to have grown in the region that includes the Malaya Peninsula, Indonesia, the Philippines and New Guinea.
From here, traders and travelers took them to India, Africa and Polynesia. There were references to bananas from 600 BC when Buddhist scriptures, know as the Pali Canon, noted Indian traders traveling through the Malaysian region had tasted the fruit and brought plants back with them. In 327 BC, when Alexander The Great and his army invaded India, he discovered banana crop in the Indian Valleys. After tasting this unusual fruit for the first time, he introduced this new discovery to the Western world.
By 200 AD bananas had spread to China. According to the Chinese historian Yang Fu, bananas only ever grew in the southern region of China. They were never really popular until the 20th Century as they were considered to be a strange and exotic alien fruit.
The bananas we enjoy today are far better than the original wild fruit which contained many large, hard seeds and not much tasty pulp.
Bananas as we know them began to be developed in Africa about 650 AD. There was a cross breeding of two varieties of wild bananas, the Musa Acuminata and the Musa Baalbisiana. From this process, some bananas became seedless and more like the bananas we eat today.
How Bananas Got Their Name
Most historians believe that the Arabian slave traders are the ones who gave the banana its popular name. The bananas that originated from Southeast Asia were not the size that we are familiar with today. They were small, about as long as an adult finger, hence the name “banan”, Arabic for finger. However, some believe the name may have come from a local language in West Africa.
Bananas are also known as plantains. Spaniards, who saw a similarity to their native plane tree, gave the fruit the name platano. This led to the name plantain – a word used to describe the banana genus as well as the banana variety, Plantain, which is typically used for cooking. The unripe Plantain, commonly steamed or boiled, resembles the taste of a potato. However, when ripe, they can be eaten raw like other banana varieties, and have a starchy but sweet flavour.
The First Banana Plantations
It is thought that traders from Arabia, Persia, India and Indonesia distributed banana suckers around coastal regions of the Indian Ocean (but not Australia) between the 5th and 15th centuries.
Portuguese sailors discovered bananas in West Africa and established banana plantations in the 15th century off the coast, in the Canary lslands.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, suckers were traded in the Americas and plantations were established in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Banana plants first arrived in Australia in the 1800s.
The Cavendish Banana
The variety of banana best known to us today is the Cavendish, named after Englishman William Spencer Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire.
It is thought the original Cavendish plants were brought from southern China in about 1826 and taken to Mauritius. From there some plants were taken to England and, several years later, derivatives from these plants were obtained by the Duke’s gardener, Joseph Paxton, in 1829. He propagated them in glasshouses.
A missionary named John Williams took suckers from these plants to Samoa in 1838 and, from there, bananas spread to Tonga and Fiji in the 1840s. It was believed plants were brought from the Pacific Islands to the east coast of Australia in the 1850s. One of the types of bananas in the Cavendish group was named Williams, after John Williams.
In the 1900s, Cavendish became one of the world’s most popular banana varieties and remains so today. It is one of the most resilient banana varieties – the plant is resistant to some soil fungi which can harm or destroy other banana varieties. The fruit is also very tasty and can be transported over long distances.
Bananas are a Healthy Fruit
As well as being a popular fruit worldwide, bananas are also one of the most nutritious of all foods. Bananas are a source of energy-producing carbohydrates, potassium, vitamin B6, vitamin C, folate, dietary fibre and antioxidants. Bananas have no fat, cholesterol or salt.
Because they provide sustaining energy, bananas are a favourite food for active children and adults, including athletes and sports players.
In many nations, a special variety of bananas are a major staple food crop. Known as Plantains or Cooking Bananas, they are a starchier variety of banana cooked green in ways similar to potatoes.
Refer also to Health Benefits of Bananas
Bananas in Australia
Chinese migrant communities introduced the first bananas to Australia. Chinese migrants are thought to have brought the first banana plants with them to Australia in the 1800s – firstly in the early to mid 1800s to Carnarvon in Western Australia and then to north Queensland in the 1870s. Sugar cane cutters (Kanakas) from Fiji also brought some banana plants to Queensland at around that time.
The first Australian banana plants were mainly grown as ornamental plants rather than in commercial plantations so the first banana fruits traded were not grown locally but imported from Fiji to Sydney.
However, before long, commercial plantations were established.
In north Queensland, Chinese workers from the goldfields established banana plantations in the 1880s around Cooktown, Port Douglas, Cairns, Innisfail and Tully.
In 1891, Herman Reich started plantations in Coffs Harbour and surrounding areas in New South Wales from the plants first brought to Queensland. Chinese merchants also established plantations in northern New South Wales, around Mullumbimby. They had established extensive plantations by 1919.
Bananas were also grown near Gympie in Queensland which was the biggest banana producing area in Australia between 1918 and the early 1930s.
Banana plant diseases reduced or stopped growing in some regions during the early to mid 1900s. The development of better farm management and biosecurity controls allowed the industry to thrive in the main growing regions of Queensland, northern New South Wales and Western Australia.
Fun and Interesting Banana Trivia
Bananas have a curious way of capturing everyone’s imagination. They can really play on your mind if you have a sense of humour, a bent for the extraordinary or a passion for trivia. This is the section to delve into for all those weird and wonderful facts about bananas, fun stories from around the world.
- In the United States town of Council Bluffs in Iowa, it was against the law to sell bananas without warning the buyer on the dangers of casting the peels on the footpath.
- Bananas are grown Iceland. The fruit is grown in greenhouses heated by water pumped up from volcanic underground springs.
- Angel Castro, Father of Fidel Castro, was a banana plantation owner. When young, Fidel tended the bananas on his father’s 10,000 acre estate.
- The sap of the fe’i banana is a reddish colour and was once used by missionaries to make copies of the Bible by dipping bamboo pens in the red sap.
- In the former Belgian Congo European soldiers during colonial times used the sap from the banana plant to heal wounds made by arrows of the natives.
- A half eaten banana was sold on the Internet auction site Ebay for US$2500, with the money going to charity. The other half of the banana was eaten by a British television presenter. The successful bidder was a United Kingdom stockbroker.
- In the 17th and 18th centuries it was considered bad luck to carry bananas on board a sailing ship. Back then, ships undertaking transatlantic crossings would stop at tropical islands to replenish their provisions of food and water. Passengers and crew would purchase wooden crates of bananas from the locals and bring them abroad. These crates often harboured bugs, spiders, vermin and snakes that would make their way into the bilges of the ships, multiply, and then find their way into the captains’ quarters. It is believed the captains circulated rumours that bananas were bad luck in an attempt to keep unwanted exotics off the ship.
- An urban myth propagated by those opposed to the formation of the European Union is that the European Commission had decreed that bananas destined for the European market must be straight, not curved as nature intended. This myth originates from one aspect of EU Regulation 2257/94 that states that ‘bananas must be free from malformation or excessive curvature of the fingers”. In fact the European Commission was asked by national agriculture ministers and the banana industry to draft legislation to establish uniform banana quality standards, and did so after extensive consultation with the industry.
- There are in excess of 500 banana varieties in the world. They come in all shapes and sizes, from small finger fruits to purple plantains.
- Bananas are harvested green because they keep ripening even after they are picked.
- Unlike most other fruits that grow on trees, bananas grow on plants.
- The phrase ‘going bananas’ was first recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, and is linked to the fruit’s ‘comic’ connections with monkeys.
Food and Cooking
Bananas are a staple starch for many tropical populations. Depending upon cultivar and ripeness, the flesh can vary in taste from starchy to sweet, and texture from firm to mushy. Both the skin and inner part can be eaten raw or cooked. The banana’s flavour is due, amongst other chemicals, to isoamyl acetate which is one of the main constituents of banana oil.
During the ripening process, bananas produce the gas ethylene, which acts as a plant hormone and indirectly affects the flavour. Among other things, ethylene stimulates the formation of amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starch into sugar, influencing the taste of bananas. The greener, less ripe bananas contain higher levels of starch and, consequently, have a “starchier” taste. On the other hand, yellow bananas taste sweeter due to higher sugar concentrations. Furthermore, ethylene signals the production of pectinase, an enzyme which breaks down the pectin between the cells of the banana, causing the banana to soften as it ripens.
Bananas are eaten deep fried, baked in their skin in a split bamboo, or steamed in glutinous rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Bananas can be made into jam. Banana pancakes are popular amongst backpackers and other travelers in South Asia and Southeast Asia. This has elicited the expression Banana Pancake Trail for those places in Asia that cater to this group of travelers. Banana Chips are a snack produced from sliced dehydrated or fried banana or plantain, which have a dark brown colour and an intense banana taste. Dried bananas are also ground to make banana flour. Extracting juice is difficult, because when a banana is compressed, it simply turns to pulp. Bananas feature prominently in Philippine cuisine, being part of traditional dishes and desserts like maruya, turrón, and halo-halo. Most of these dishes use the Saba or Cardaba banana cultivar. Bananas are also commonly used in cuisine in the South-Indian state of Kerala, where they are steamed (puzhungiyathu), made into curries, fried into chips (upperi) or fried in batter (pazhampori). Pisang Goreng, bananas fried with batter similar to the Filipino maruya or Kerala pazhampori, is a popular dessert in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. A similar dish is known in Australia as banana fritters.
Plantains are used in various stews and curries or cooked, baked or mashed in much the same way as potatoes, such as the Pazham Pachadi prepared in Kerala.
Seeded bananas (Musa balbisiana), one of the forerunners of the common domesticated banana, are sold in markets in Indonesia.
Banana hearts are used as a vegetable in South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine, either raw or steamed with dips or cooked in soups, curries and fried foods. The flavour resembles that of artichoke. As with artichokes, both the fleshy part of the bracts and the heart are edible.
Banana leaves are large, flexible, and waterproof. They are often used as ecologically friendly disposable food containers or as “plates” in South Asia and several Southeast Asian countries. In Indonesian cuisine, banana leaf is employed in cooking method called pepes and botok; the banana leaf packages containing food ingredients and spices are cooked on steam, in boiled water or grilled on charcoal. In the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala in every occasion the food must be served in a banana leaf and as a part of the food a banana is served. They often serve as a wrapping for grilling food. The leaves contain the juices, protect food from burning and add a subtle flavour. In Tamil Nadu (India) leaves are fully dried and used as packing material bananas are typically sold under cups to hold liquid foods. In Central American countries, banana leaves are often used as wrappers for tamales. See also Banana Leaves
The tender core of the banana plant’s trunk is also used in South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine, and notably in the Burmese dish mohinga.