Vittles 2.10 - Plantain

Plantain, A Rose By Any Other Name, by Yvonne Maxwell

See, you post just one article on Twitter saying ‘A plantain is like an edgy sweet potato’ and suddenly it’s all ‘Tweet not found’. That’s the situation The Economist found themselves in this week, when they released a small capsule article by an author comparing the two completely different foods. The reactions to this article ranged from “Please STOP writing about things you know NOTHING about. A plantain tastes NOTHING like a sweet potato. The palette of the colonisers cannot be trusted to describe the food of the slaughtered and enslaved.” all the way up to “I will fucking peel you, slice you and fry you.”

As someone who has been on the very mild side of this when I called samosas dumplings, I have to admit that I am all for it. Food writers who get commissioned to write about stuff they know nothing about deserve to be taken down a peg; editors who commission them even more so. The Economist isn’t at all unique in this, but if you commission someone to write about something which is culturally important to many people then you better be sure they either know their shit inside out, or that they’re from that culture themselves. Too often the media will fall back on the same people again and again to write shallow pieces about topics they have no expertise in - this is why most opinion writing is so bad. It’s also why so much food writing is completely bland, milquetoast and disposable.

Yvonne Maxwell submitted her following newsletter on plantain well before the Economist article, but it couldn’t have been better timing. I’ve been a longtime admirer of Yvonne’s Instagram, where she posts under @passthedutchpot. Not only is her photography beautiful - whether she is capturing the crags in a food vendor’s face or a plantain in its most exquisite state of ripeness - but it speaks so much of a taste and appetite that we don’t usually get to see in traditional food media. It claims the entire world for her own - whether it’s a Katz’s Reuben, boiled yam and kontomire in Ghana, plantain and attieke in Senegal or a kaiseki meal, each are treated equally and celebrated for what they are with an open mind and with real knowledge. My vision of a truly equal food media looks very much like Yvonne’s feed.

Yvonne has chosen to write about her first love, plantain, and this is a great time for you to eschew the supermarkets and try out your local Afro-Caribbean shops if you live near one. Yvonne says “In most of SE and SW London plantain is still flowing and the price is pretty much the same following the previous price hikes (pre-coronavirus), with a lot of market sellers still pricing at 3 for £1.20 / £1.50 or 4 overly ripe for £1.20.” although considering the precarity of imported produce this may not stay the same. The plantain belt - west Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean islands - also happens to represent the countries given the least time and held in the lowest importance by the British food media despite the fact they are integral to London identity. If you have yet to cook plantain then now is the time to do it - follow Yvonne’s recipes and you may learn about whole cultures and ways of thinking that exist outside the pages of a food section.

Plantain, A Rose By Any Other Name, by Yvonne Maxwell

I do not have a memory of life before plantain. 

Being both African and West Indian, born to a Nigerian father and St Lucian mother, and never having lived in either country, my relationship with the food of both cultures was always a constant marker of identity for me. I remember when I was 12 years old sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner with a childhood friend and her family. They were a Nigerian family, so it was a mish-mash of foods you would typically associate with a traditional British Christmas dinner but with a Nigerian flare. Roast ham and turkey, pigs in blankets, jollof rice and fried plantain. As we started to tuck into this feast of fusion delights, I called across the table asking for someone to pass me the plantain. The room fell silent and everyone stared at me with a look of confusion. Was the plantain off limits, or something? With pity in her eyes, my friend's sister said "It's plan-tain, not plan-tin, dear". This was my first encounter with one of the most long-standing diaspora food wars.

Now, I know that there is a lot of contention around how the word plantain is pronounced, but I feel that this issue is unwarranted. Plantain is widely consumed and universally loved by a myriad of people speaking different tongues. Why must one name or pronunciation prevail over another?

That there is a fierce debate over the pronunciation only reflects that people feel very strongly about plantain. Ownership is the driving force in their insistence that the name familiar to them is the only one they acknowledge, as this authenticates their claim to it. The truth is, whether you call it plantain (West Africa), “plantin” (The Caribbean Islands), plátanos or maduros (Latin America), kacha kela (Hindi), laphoo tharo (Manipuri), or cooking banana; a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.

Plantain is a food of the world. Gifted to us by the ‘food gods’ as a demonstration of our similarities and kinship with one another, we all share, devour and enjoy this global blessing. Its skin is perfectly blemished and, at its finest, darkened with black lines. Even bruised, it's beauty shines through and sweetness prevails. If your preference is for the savoury kind, even in its unripened state - firm and green - it can still provide you with the culinary adventure you crave.

Plantain is ubiquitous within the communities that have migrated to the UK, so much so that the price of plantain can be as important as the price of a pint of milk is to everyone else. Through the migration of these people, plantain has now found new homes in market stalls and major supermarkets in the UK and across Europe, taking the exotic into the everyday. Almost everywhere I have travelled I have encountered plantain. I cannot escape it, and have absolutely no desire to. If, like me, you use travel as an opportunity to explore a country’s culture through its cuisine, you may be feeling a little lost at the moment with increasingly rigid restrictions on movement. But all hope is not lost, as markets across London stock plantain in abundance. So why not quench your wanderlust by exploring your local African or Caribbean food market and discover plantain’s wonders for yourself.

The greatest superpower of plantain is its versatility, evidenced by how many different cultures have adapted it to their palates and cuisines. With all the differences come a myriad of personal preferences based on nostalgia, access to ingredients and cooking ability. Whether flattened and double fried; sliced diagonally into round circles or cubed and fried; roasted, boiled in soups, or  pounded into a soft starchy ball to be consumed alongside rich stews and sauces; used as a substitute for bread, or thinly sliced into chips and fried in rich coconut oil; plantain offers a world of possibilities that is as diverse as the cultures that consume it.

Plantain features heavily in West African cuisine. My birthplace, Nigeria, is one of the largest producers of plantain in West Africa and is well versed in the art of fried plantain, which the Yoruba call dodo. Similar to alloco - an Ivorian take on fried plantain - the Nigerians cut them into various shapes and sizes based on personal preference or convenience and fry in hot oil, eating it alongside other dishes such as rice and assorted meat stew. We Nigerians really know how to utilise plantain; boiled, pounded and roasted (bole/boli) versions all feature heavily in day to day use. From my visits to Ghana, I have witnessed how they transform over-ripe plantain with the skin black in colour to create kelewele, whereby the plantain is cut into rectangular slithers and cubes, tossed into a mixture of spices, then fried in hot oil and served with roasted peanuts.

On road trips through Cuba, we often stopped at random casas particulares for lunch, and this is where I encountered sopa de platano or plantain soup - a delicious Cuban staple that combines green (unripe) plantain, tomatoes, onions, garlic and beef stock to make a rich puree like soup. The Caribbean Islands in general have developed a number of creative ways of enjoying plantain in all its stages. In Suriname, they have a dish called bakabana, originating from Indonesia, whereby they slice, batter and fry plantain and serve with a peanut sauce. The Dominicans mash boiled green plantain for breakfast, known as mangu, proving once and for all that you can eat plantain for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert - I knew I wasn’t crazy! During my time in New York, I had the wonderful opportunity to dine at the intimate A Table For Four supperclub, where Trinidad born Chef Leigh-Ann Martin puts a modern twist on traditional Trinidadian foodways. Her sweet plantain push-pop is a mind blowing adaptation to a childhood treat and still brings a tear to my eyes.

Plantain at any stage is something to be revered however you prepare it and whichever name or pronunciation preference you choose, plantain is something for us all. And if you have yet to fry perfectly ripe plantain and pop it into your mouth, still glistening with scorching oil from the pan because patience was simply not an option, soldiering on and taking big breaths as the hot plantain releases its caramelised sweetness, the feelings in your mouth oscillating from pain to pleasure - then you, my friend, have not known true joy. 

Fried Plantain

Origin: West Africa, Caribbean

Ingredients

2-3 Plantain

Vegetable or Coconut Oil for frying

Salt to taste (optional)

Preparation

Rinse and dry your plantain. Using a sharp knife, cut both ends off of the plantain and carefully cut a shallow line down the long seam of the plantain, taking care not to pierce the flesh of the plantain. Peel off the skin and discard. Cut the plantain in diagonal pieces about 1 each thick and set aside.

Heat oil in a large skillet or heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat. Test if the oil is ready by carefully sliding in a slice of plantain - the oil should bubble around the slice. When oil is at optimum temperature, proceed to carefully slide in the remaining slices - you’ll need to do this in batches. Turn the slices of plantain, and continue cooking until they are soft and a deep golden brown colour (or darker if that’s how you roll), about 3-5 minutes each side. Prepare a plate lined with a paper towel to soak up all the excess oil, and carefully remove the plantain with a slotted spoon, placing them onto the plate. Season with salt and serve hot.

Roasted Plantain (Bole)

Origin: West Africa

Ingredients

2 Plantain

Vegetable or Coconut Oil (just enough to coat each plantain)

Preparation

Preheat your oven to 200°C. Line a baking sheet with foil and set aside. 

Rinse and dry your plantain. Using a sharp knife, cut both ends off of the plantain and carefully cut a shallow line down the long seam of the plantain, taking care not to pierce the flesh of the plantain. Peel off the skin and discard. Coat each plantain with the oil and place on the tray. 

Bake the plantain for 15-20 minutes in total, checking and turning over halfway, until the plantain is golden brown on all sides and tender.

Plantain with Sautéed Onions, Tomatoes and Jalapeños by Chef Leigh-Ann Martin

Origin: Caribbean

Ingredients

3 large plantains,boiled

8 cherry tomatoes,cut in halves

½ cup of onions, sliced thinly

1 whole jalapeño, julienne

¼ tsp of salt and ⅛ tsp black pepper

¼ cup of coconut oil

Preparation

Leaving the skin on, cut both ends off each plantain then cut in half. In a medium sauce pot, add the plantains and enough cold water to cover them. Cook covered and bring to a rolling boil until the skins split and the plantains are tender exposing the yellow flesh. Allow to cool before slicing.

-Slice the cooled plantains on an angle and place in a shallow serving dish. On medium high heat and using a sauté pan, heat the coconut oil. Once hot, add the onions and jalapeños and sweat for about 3-4 minutes and as the onions start to look translucent, add the tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper, stir the vegetables and cook for 1-2 mins. Pour the vegetables over the plantains and lightly mix to coat the plantains with the vegetable mixture and seasoned oil, and serve warm.

Fondant-style Plantain with Sage

Origin: My Kitchen

Ingredients 

2 Plantain, each cut in half at a slant (you want them to be just ripened, not too soft)

Vegetable Oil for frying

150g Salted Butter

2 Cloves of Garlic, peeled and left whole

8 Fresh Sage leaves, separated from the stems

2 tsp Black Peppercorns, coarsely ground

Maldon Sea Salt

Preparation

Rinse and dry your plantain. Using a sharp knife, cut both ends off of the plantain and carefully cut a shallow line down the long seam of the plantain, taking care not to pierce the flesh.. Peel off the skin and discard. 

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

Cut each plantain in half so that you are left with 2 cylinders per plantain. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Heat your oil in a cast iron pan or skillet on a medium heat. While your oil is heating up, cut your butter into cubes and set aside. 

Once your oil has reached optimum temperature, carefully place the plantain cylinders into the hot oil, allowing one side to fry before rolling them over. You want the surface to darken, but the plantain will not be cooked through at this stage. Once the plantain cylinders are a dark golden brown in colour, add the butter and allow it to melt into the oil. Quickly scatter the garlic and fresh sage leaves, and turn the plantain while piercing the flesh slightly so that the oil/butter mixture can seep into the plantain. Spoon the oil/butter mixture over the plantain so that the plantain soaks up the added flavours.

Place in the oven until the plantain is a deeper coloured brown, tender and slightly caramelised (15-20 minutes). Serve hot with the cooked garlic and sage leaves. This dish is a great accompaniment to any Sunday Roast.

Yvonne Maxwell is a plantain lover, cooking enthusiast and documentary photographer, whose work focuses on telling stories of food, culture and people across the African Diaspora. This is her first piece of published writing. Yvonne donated her article to Vittles.

The illustration was done by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at https://natashaphanglee.myportfolio.com/work. She was paid for this newsletter.

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