Latin name: Musa × paradisiaca
Other names: cooking banana
Uses: staple starch
Plantains are a staple food in pretty much every tropical country in the world, eaten throughout West and Central Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Though they closely resemble bananas in every way — they’re just different hybrids of the same plants — they’re typically used less like a fruit and more like a potato or cassava: as a base for savory foods. Look for them in Asian, African, and Latin grocery stores.
Why is it healthy?
Plantains have more potassium than bananas, as well as copper, iron, and vitamins A and K. A high level of resistant starch gives plantains a low glycemic index, and makes them a good prebiotic food. Plantains’ fiber content is beneficial for digestion and cardiovascular health.
What does it taste like?
Though they look and taste much like their banana siblings, plantains are far less sweet, have a thicker peel, and a much starchier texture. They’re almost like a cross between a banana and a potato. When cooked (which they must be), they become very tender and fragrant, maintaining a pleasant banana flavor.
Where does it grow?
Plantains are native to the tropical regions of Southeast Asia, the Malay Archipelago, and Oceania. There are four main types of plantains, and they’re grown in different places, though most are grown in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Colombia. A few varieties are also grown in South Asia.
How do I prepare it and what do I pair it with?
Much like their banana kin, plantains love warm spices like ginger, cinnamon, clove, and cardamom, but because they’re starchier they also really love aggressive flavors (chile and piquant spices) and acidity (especially lime or yogurt).
Plantains are incredible fried: slice rounds of unripe plantains, smash them flat, and fry them crisp to make Cuban tostones. If you’re starting with ripe plantains, just slice and fry — you’ll see these on menus as tostones or plátanos maduros. To give it a West African spark, sprinkle fried plantains with ginger and cayenne. In El Salvador they’re served with mole and crema, which is about the dreamiest thing in the whole world.
You can use ripe plantains for Dominican canoas (canoes), stuffed with a spicy vegetable ragù and cheese — you’ll never look at a baked potato again. You can slice plantains lengthwise to use instead of lasagna noodles to make Puerto Rican pastelón. Ripe plantains can also be used in sweet applications — use them as a sturdier stand-in for bananas in a butter and rum-based dessert like bananas Foster, fried and drizzled in caramel, or in a coconut sticky rice pudding.
Since bananas and plantains are triploid (humans are diploid; we get one set of chromosomes from each of our two parents, but bananas get three sets), whether or not they’re a banana or a plantain depends on the mix of genomes they get in their three sets.