Food Katha: Banana, but not from the Vedas

Mocha and Kadali (father of the Hindi term 'Kela') are not from the Vedas. They are from Mundari language. Mundari was spoken by tribal inhabitants of India long before Vedic Aryans' arrival in India

Banana chips
Banana chips
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Mrinal Pande

Coined by O. Henry in a 1904 collection of short stories, the term ‘Banana republic’ referred to the central American country of Honduras, which exported bananas to the US. The term denotes a small country hopelessly dependent on the export of usually a single natural resource and allowing it to be controlled by foreign interests.

The craze for the tropical fruit in the United States created Banana barons and magnates, who controlled the politics and economics of Honduras and exploited the people. Two American companies, Cuyamel Fruit and United Fruit, fuelled the craze. Cuyamel was one of the ancestors of Chiquita Brands International, which still sells bananas.

Those who wish to replace all ‘alien’ words in Hindi with Sanskrit words, may be upset to learn that the Sanskrit word for a ‘holy’ fruit like banana: Mocha and Kadali (father of the Hindi term Kela) are not from the Vedas. They are from the tribal Mundari language. Mundari was spoken by tribal inhabitants of India long before Vedic Aryans made their way into the northern hinterland.

The tropical Kela must have been a new fruit for them. Anyway, they loved all three varieties, the sweet, brackish (Kashay) and the slightly bitter. The Mundari names, Kadali and Mocha became part of the Sanskrit lexicon and gradually came to be associated as a fruit dear to god Vishnu.

The name Banana came from Africa, meaning a single finger or toe. This term arrived in America and Europe with slaves and colonisers and banana seeds. The (British) word plantain is adopted from Spanish colonisers. Plantano in Spanish means planta or a spreading leaf.

In India the Musas species of bananas came from Malaya and Australia. By the 15th century bananas were also being cultivated in Cyprus, courtesy the Portuguese.

Spanish traders from Africa introduced it in Spain in the 16th century while Portuguese sailors took it to the South Americas. As they colonized tropical countries starting from Jamaica, the Portuguese started cultivating bananas in Latin America in large farms using slave labour. Till as late as the Victorian period, bananas were not widely known in Europe or US;but today bananas grown in the USA have international brands like Chiquita and Dole.

Bananas arrived in India early. Buddhist monks were permitted to eat the green bananas, not the ripe ones which might have had insects hiding within. Indian Ayurveda classifies banana as healthy but cold food that controls bile (Pitta).

Foreign visitors to India were struck by the widespread use of bananas of various varieties, especially in Kerala, where as in Caribbean cuisine, bananas are used for both sweet and savory dishes, fried into chips and fried in batter. Kerala style plantain chips fried in coconut oil and fresh banana fritters are popular snacks and desserts from south east Asia to England today.

Banana hearts are used as an exotic vegetable in Bengal and Assam. There are references to great mystic seer Chaitanya Mahaprabhu being served ‘Thod’ a delicacy prepared out of the heart of the banana stem. The flavour is said to be close to artichoke hearts and considered a great delicacy in Bengal. In Bengal Mochar Ghonto, curried heart of banana flower, and fish steamed with mustard paste and juice of Gondhoraj variety of lemons are also delicacies.

Banana leaves being large, flexible and waterproof, make for ideal and disposable food plates. They are traditionally used in India for serving food, particularly on holy occasions and within temples. Being biodegradable and available everywhere in plenty, washed properly, they are also a more hygienic way of serving cooked food than badly washed dishes in eateries.

While in the north bananas are eaten mostly as fruit or as offering to gods, down south the green varieties are used to make various delicacies like Avialand a sweet dish called Koaleputtu, a mash of ripe bananas, roast rice powder, jaggery and wedges of coconut all steamed together in banana leaf packages, to be eaten hot or cold. The tender core of the banana tree trunk is also used in curries in Kerala, Burma and North Eastern states in India.

Food Katha: Banana, but not from the Vedas

Umpteen number of songs have been sung and composed about bananas even as failed republics have come to be known as Banana Republics (majority of them being Latin American ones).

Bananas are an inalienable part of traditional Indian life. Weddings to the recitation of Hari Katha or Satya Narayan Katha are incomplete without the Kadali Stambh (banana tree trunks serving as pillars for a canopy). But in Thailand it is believed that ghostly spirits reside in a banana tree and manifest themselves as beautiful women. To prevent them from appearing, a silk cloth is tied around banana trees.

In Uttarakhand the autumn festival season is kickstarted by the fair to the hill goddess Nanda Devi, protectress of the area. Legend associates her with banana groves where she and her sister sought shelter from a predatory demon buffalo. They later killed the demon Durga-like, but as a gesture of thanksgiving to the grove, each year the local artisans craft their images from banana tree trunks which are immersed after being worshipped for nine straight days at her temple in Almora.

The Mahabharata also talks of a kingdom high up in the Himalayas called Kadali Vana. It was ruled entirely by women who had barred entry to men. Legend has it that Matsendranath, a great Yogi and musician, somehow gained entry into this exotic feminist heaven and got completely enraptured. It took his disciple Gorakhnath a long journey from the plains into Nepal before he was prised away from the enticing Kadal Desh.

(The writer is Group Editorial Advisor of National Herald)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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