While I usually deplore the ‘food as fuel’ mentality, the mindless consumption of edible goods simply as an aid to increased productivity regardless of their nature, I have to say that I do sometimes treat the poor banana with such an attitude. Wolfed down between coming home from work and heading to the gym, practically inhaled as a pre-swim morning snack or gulped greedily every time I feel that familiar blood sugar slump, I rarely pay much attention to this humble fruit, carelessly exploiting it for its filling, sugar-rich, workout-boosting nature and ease of eating.
Sometimes I give the banana a bit more attention, particularly when it comes to rescuing sad, blackened specimens otherwise destined for the bin and turning them into gorgeously moist spiced breads or pancakes. Banana upside down cake, sticky toffee banana pudding and banana blondies have all been success stories in this vein. However, apart from these occasions, it’s safe to say that bananas don’t really get a starring role in my diet.
When I was in Indonesia this summer, though, it was a different story. Suddenly the banana became much more of a feature in my consciousness. Obviously, bananas are more of a dietary staple over there because you can find them everywhere, growing in their curious finger-like upwards formation by the sides of roads and along paths, much like you might find blackberries in the UK. I could never quite get over the surreal experience of going for a walk and just being able to pluck a banana (also pineapples, papaya and mangoes) from a nearby tree.
In my experience, bananas in Asia are much smaller and sweeter than those we get over here. When I was camping in the rainforest in Borneo (yeah, I did just casually drop that into conversation, I am that person), we were given the tiniest bananas I’ve ever seen at breakfast each morning – only about two inches long. They were adorable. In Indonesia, they found their way into various dishes, but without fail the highlight was pisang goreng, or fried bananas. I can’t remember where I first tried these, but they became a staple of my diet while travelling out there.
One night in Bali I went out for dinner on my own and ordered a huge plate of mee goreng, fried noodles, followed by pisang goreng (definitely not one of my healthier nights). I was presented with a plate of gigantic banana fritters, encased in super-crispy light and bubbly batter, their insides molten and sweet and tasting of caramel and butterscotch. There are few things in this world as comforting and moreish as a fruit fritter, crispy and buttery on the outside and soft, hot and sweet within. It had been a very long and stressful day of travelling (read: a flight was involved), and I absolutely devoured these calorific morsels. If there’s ever a time to have earned banana fritters in your life, this was it.
My favourite incarnation of pisang goreng, though, was actually in Yogyakarta. I was staying down the road from Via Via, a ‘traveller’s café’ that did great local and Western food, live music, outdoor barbecues, interesting tours of Java and had a shop selling beautiful and unusual hand-made crafts and gifts. It had a great atmosphere, particularly for a lone traveller like myself, but more importantly it had a tempting dessert menu. Depending on where you go in south east Asia, dessert isn’t always forthcoming, and by this point I was craving sugar in a big way.
Ten minutes after ordering ‘pan fried bananas with honey and ice cream’, I was tucking into a beautiful plate of little bananas, golden and caramelised and crisp on the outside, soft and sweet in the middle. They were buttery and sugary, caramel-scented and hot and sweet, there was ice cream and my craving was satisfied. Or perhaps not, as I then proceeded to go back to Via Via every night for the next three days and eat them again. I couldn’t get enough of the combination of hot fruit and cold ice cream, of sweet gooey banana and the flavour of caramel.
I’ve never cooked bananas in that simple way before, and the dish was a bit of a revelation. Such simplicity, but such utter indulgent deliciousness as the result. It’s one of the most memorable dishes from my travels, and five weeks later I finally got round to recreating it in my kitchen. It’s no more complicated than spiking some sizzling butter in a pan with brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and a pinch of salt (the salt is important – it goes wonderfully with the intense toffee sweetness of the hot bananas; think salted caramel), then adding bananas (try and get small ones, they have a better flavour I think) and caramelising them on both sides. Serve them with vanilla ice cream, and a scattering of toasted coconut – the Javanese original didn’t have this, but I think it adds another dimension and a delicious crunch. Simple but exotic and wonderful, and I think they look pretty gorgeous too.
Caramelised bananas with toasted coconut (serves 2):
4 small bananas
4 tbsp desiccated coconut
2 tbsp light brown sugar
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp honey
Vanilla ice cream, to serve
Peel the bananas. Toast the coconut in a dry frying pan, then set aside. Heat the butter in a non-stick frying pan until it melts and starts to bubble, then add the sugar, cinnamon and salt. Fry the bananas on each side for a couple of minutes until they are sticky and caramelised. Put on two plates, drizzle with the honey, then serve with ice cream.