The Tropical Fruit Plantain: Its Gastronomical Uses and Nutrition

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As the popularity of the potato is on the downturn, the consumption of exotic, starchy fruits and vegetables like plantain are on the increase. But what exactly is plantain? how to prepare it? and is it good for us?

I was first introduced to the gastronomical uses and delights of plantain many years ago by my Colombian wife, whilst living in London. Before that I had seen plantain in Caribbean produce markets but had steered clear because I wasn’t sure how to prepare them. These days we enjoy plantains as part of our regular diet, I’m glad to say, because plantains are inexpensive, tasty and extremely nutritious.

The Plantain, botanical name Musa acuminata or Musa balbisiana (hybrid, M.acuminata + balbisiana) also known as ‘cooking banana‘,is closely related to the sweet banana ( Musa spp). One look at the origin of the bananas and plantains in your local supermarket and you might think that this fruit had its inception in South or Central America. In fact, the true origin of bananas and plantains is unsure, although they did originate from the old world, probably South East Asia or the Indian sub-continent. Plantains are one of the few fruits to have traveled from the orient to the Americas and not the other way around. The earliest mention of this fruit are in ancient Greek texts and that of Alexander the Great who comments on having seen the fruit in India.

Plantain and bananas come from an herbaceous plant and not a tree. Plantain skin is thicker, much tougher to peel and its fruit tough because its starch is different from that of the banana. As food, plantains are extremely versatile. It is possible to eat plantain raw, although not recommended as raw plantain contains bitter tasting tannins that are neutralized during cooking.

Plantain has three stages of ripeness and can be cooked at any stage. The first is the young green plantain or platanos verdes. When green, plantain is tough and starchy and care should taken during preparation as it contains a resin that stains clothing. In Colombia green plantains are used to thicken and flavor stews such as sancocho de gallina (hen stew). Otherwise they are cut into sections, smashed and fried as patacon or tostones, as they are known in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean tostones are often served with salsa de ajo ( garlic sauce) and in Colombia they are eaten with mayonnaise or salsa de aji (chili sauce).

Often I purchase ripe plantain in large amounts and we don’t have time to eat all the plantains before they begin to ripen. In any case, I look forward to the fully ripened plantains because I know a treat is in store. After 3 to 4 days the skin turns from green to yellow with brown freckles and eventually to black. Whatever you do don’t throw these black plantains away, because under the skin the plantain’s starchy, orange-yellow, flesh has turned to sugar and become soft and incredibly sweet.

Your options for cooking ripe plantain or maduros, as they are known in Spanish, are slightly more limited. They can be deep fried, shallow fried or as I prefer, sautéed in a little olive oil and or butter. Ripe plantains are delicate so use a nonstick pan. If you prefer not to fry the plantain they can also be baked. Brush the plantain with oil or butter and bake them for about 30-40 minutes, uncovered, in a medium hot oven. Try baking the plantains whole, cut incisions and insert stripes of cheese half way through cooking. Some restaurants add sugar, flambé the ripe plantain with dark rum and butter, like Bananas Foster, and serve them with ice cream.

Nutrition: Its not without reason that plantains are a staple food in Africa, the West Indies and the tropical Americas. Plantain is essentially a great energy food because it is mostly carbohydrate ( 32 g per 100 g serving), with a small amount of protein and fiber. This food is an excellent source of potassium and contains vitamin C, vitamin B6, and magnesium. Plantain also supplies the carotenoid beta-carotene or vitamin A. Antioxidant rich beta-carotene helps neutralize damaging free radicals and helps repair DNA. Plantains contain folic acid, a B vitamin, that is especially important for pregnant woman and the prevention of birth defects.

Tostones, fried green plantain. Image credit 

Ripe plantain or maduros; image credit.

Primary image credit.


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