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The Ubiquitous Banana

THE WORD "ubiquitous" literally means: "existing everywhere at once", and never will this word be more appropriately used than when describing the bananas in Thailand. They are truly everywhere, all of the time. You will see them growing everywhere; in people's household gardens, temple gardens, bordering field crops or in orchards of their own. But in even greater evidence in Thailand, you will see the fruit and the byproducts of the banana tree in use in every city, town or village on an everyday basis. The banana plant is indigenous to Southeast Asia, and in all, there are some 28 different varieties of bananas grown in Thailand, many of which are used in very specific ways, but all of which serve some worthwhile purpose in the Thai scheme of things.

The banana plant is not truly a tree, even though they have been known to reach heights of 8 meters or more. The plants are all fiber, and grow by sending out successive groupings of leaves from the stalk. On each trunk, approximately 10 leaves are visible at any one time, while the same number of new leaves wait within the stalk to emerge as the older ones fall off. After four or five successions of this process, the plant will flower. There are both male and female flowers on each plant; the male flowers do the pollinating, and the female flowers turn into bananas.

In general, there are two types of bananas: the sweet type, which is the large type that most people are used to eating; and the cooking type, which is smaller, and also known as plantains. But all are rich in Vitamin A and carbohydrates, both essential nutritional replenishments in tropical climates such as Thailand's. Bananas also contain a substantial amount of Vitamin C, and are a valuable source of potassium in the diet. In Asia, every part of the banana plant is utilized in some way:

The roots can be ground or chopped up and used as plant mulch or fertilizer. The trunk has many uses. The tougher outer layers can be ground up and used for animal feed, while the very young and tender inner trunk can be pureed for food. The fibrous outer layers can be shaped and carved and are often used as part of the decoration of a funeral pyre. The fiber is used to make string, twine or rope, which in turn can be used for everything from weaving place mats, hot pads, carrying bags, hats and purses to tying up portions of herbs and leafy vegetables in the market. Originally, the "Krathong" (the floating offerings each person makes during the Loy Krathong festival) were made from a crosscut section of the banana trunk, then decorated with intricately folded banana leaves, flowers, a candle and coin, before being set afloat on a pond, stream or river. A few years back, Styrofoam came into more popular use for this purpose. However, Styrofoam is not biodegradable, and for the last couple of years here in Chiangmai, there has been an active campaign during Loy Krathong to encourage celebrants to go back to using banana boles, which are friendly to rivers and the ecosystem.

The leaves are constantly used for containers, cooking and wrapping, and are everywhere in evidence. Many Thai dishes are prepared by wrapping in banana leaves and then boiled, steamed or grilled. The moisture in the leaves helps keep the food fresh longer. Foods cooked in banana leaves will also absorb small amounts of flavor and aroma from the leaves, giving them a special, and subtle, taste and smell. You will see many of these wrapped foods sold by street vendors and in small markets. The green leaves are also adeptly folded into trays, which are used for serving or transporting food, or can be used to hold flower arrangements. These trays also have a prominent place in various Thai rituals. They are used to hold bridal gifts, for example. When people are terminally ill, a tray is prepared containing flowers, candles and incense to prepare them for departure to the next world. Many rituals involve the preparation of elaborate floral offerings for parades, special ceremonies, or presentation to monks, temples, spirit houses, etc., and most of the traditional designs involve a combination of green banana leaves and flowers.

Green banana leaves can be used to cover a pan when cooking, or can be put in the pan before frying an egg. They are frequently used for wrapping small fish prior to grilling, keeping the moisture and flavor in while cooking. Dry banana leaves also have their uses. They are used to provide a seal when closing jar lids, provide a cover lid for water jars, and are also used as the outer wrapping in rolling a cigar-type of cigarette. They are also mixed with coconut oil to use in polishing articles made from animal horn or bone, and with oil, ash and lime to use as a metal polish.

The sap of the banana plant has been used in dying cloth to a light brown color. The banana skins are used in making certain sauces, banana wine, vinegar and fertilizers. The blossoms of certain species of banana are prized here in the North for making special types of curry. The banana stalks are used as stirring instruments, such as the silk in dye cauldrons. The stalks are also used in making a variety of traditional toys for children, such as a stick horse, pistol, sword and boat.

The banana fruit is processed in a number of ways, depending on the variety. Some varieties, for example, are used primarily for making banana flour or ground into powder. This in turn is a major ingredient in baby foods, because it is rich in amino acids, mineral salts and special sugars which make calcium easy to absorb. The flour is used in baking cookies, cakes and etc. Pureed ripe bananas are part of every Thai baby's diet, and puree is also used as the basis for a delicious and nutritious banana milk shake, or a tasty and moist banana cake.

The fruit is very versatile. It can be boiled, fried, grilled, steamed, pickled or dried in the sun or special ovens. Dried bananas make a delightful snack, as do those thinly sliced and deep-fried like potato chips. There are also butter-steamed banana chips, crispy rice cake and banana crackers, raw banana pellets (of special appeal to those with stomach problems), cooked with syrup, grilled kebab style, raw banana green curry, banana cooked in coconut milk, raw banana and papaya salad, boiled banana without syrup, preserved and fried bananas, and even banana jam. Another delicious treat is "Paen Baang", which is made by grinding up preserved Numwah bananas, then steaming in very thin layers. This is then cut into pieces which are rolled into small tubes, and dried. Very brittle and flaky, and melts in your mouth. There is almost no limit to the number of tempting ways bananas are prepared here in Thailand, any of which is worth a try.

In addition to being biodegradable, the banana plants are an important agent in soil regeneration, and very effective in contributing to air quality. The banana plant absorbs carbon dioxide in great quantities, and thus contributes to a reduction in air pollution.

According to the folklore of India, it is said that the Ascetics who live in the forests eat a constant diet of bananas until they become wise men. Whether this would work for you, we don't know, but it is safe to say that North Thailand is a great place to enjoy a wide variety of the healthy and delicious offerings of the ubiquitous banana

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