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Everything you need to know about plantains

Everything You Need to Know About Plantains

By Juan Nino May 30, 2024

Cluster of recently harvested plantains

The humble plantain. Musa paradisiaca. A staple food worldwide. Close cousin to the beloved banana and yet so very uniquely different in taste, texture, and preparation. There’s a “bunch” to love about plantains, so let’s peel back the layers and dive into what makes this unique vegetable-like fruit so special!

Speculated to have originated in South Asia, plantains eventually made their way by trade to a vast array of countries and cultures across southern parts of the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, where they became a staple in daily cuisines. Due to their heartiness, with a tough peel that keeps the inner fruit intact and a very forgiving time period for consumption, from unripe to super ripe, the plantain became a great choice for many diverse cultures for daily energy and nutrition and maintains that role to this day. Plantains have been so beloved that they’ve even been featured in folklore and been made the subject of children’s books, like “Plátanos Are Love” by author Alyssa Reynoso-Morris or Plátanos Go with Everything by Lissette Norman.

Plantain trees thrive best in a tropical climate (think Colombia, for example), where the temperature, rainfall, and altitude is consistent and ideal for the plant to thrive and produce fruit. From seed to fully mature, ready-to-harvest plantain cluster, it typically takes around 9-12 months, with clusters ready for harvest approximately 3-4 months after the plant flowers. Plantain trees can reach heights of 10-30 ft tall, with leaves up to 8 ft long and 2 ft wide. The fruit grows in clusters called “hands,” and clusters can carry from 10-20 individual plantains. Typically, a plantain cluster is most often harvested by hand, with the bunch cut by machete or other equally sharp tool. Since the plantain tree is so papery, it isn’t like hacking down a massive tree.

The Colombian Coffee Region is where we grow and harvest the plantains we use for our snacks. How beautiful are those mountains?

Colombia's Coffee Region offers perfect climate and elevation for plantain trees to thrive

Clusters of harvested plantains.

Green plantains recently harvested. Plantains are harvested in clusters. Each cluster can have anywhere from 10 to 20 plantains

 A plantain tree's leaves are stunning and massive.

Plantain trees have massive and beautiful leaves

The “trunk” of the plantain tree is actually an intricate papery network of spiraling leaf layers with an inner pseudo-stem. From the center of this stem, the fruiting plantain flower will travel from base to top of tree where it will sprout a unique large purplish teardrop-shaped flower that will become the cluster of plantain fruit. Plantains are in the rhizome family, meaning their root systems grow more horizontally than vertically and can send out their own shoots that will then become the next generation of mature fruit-producing plant. A plantain tree will produce just one cluster of fruit in its lifetime before the next generation of plant, often called “sons,” will then take over and begin the cycle all over. Once the “mother” tree has produced and its cluster is harvested, it is often cut down to allow the next generation to maintain the most nutrients for growth and production. You can often trace the “lineage” along the ground of these plantain families, from old stumps to new shoots making their way down a path of generations.

As one of Colombia's regenerative agriculture pioneers, Don Oscar, would poetically tell you, the life cycle of the plantain tree is much like a pregnancy. A plantain bunch begins as a small seedling at the root of the tree, with the flower that will eventually become a plantain bunch growing and working its way up the trunk from the base to the very top of the inner stem (over the course of that 9-12 months from planting) before the tree “births” the flower. It is said that you can sometimes even hear these “labor pains” from the plantain trees as the flower begins to emerge.

Don Oscar at his farm, Jerusalén, located in Colombia's Coffee Region.

Don Oscar is a regenerative agriculture pioneer in Colombia

Plantains also thrive in community and are well served in an ecosystem with other crops that have similar needs, where each can benefit from the other. They’re commonly grown among crops like cacao, cassava, and other fruits where they can form an infrastructure of protection and nutrients for one another. At Artisan Tropic, we aim to go beyond the confines of traditional agriculture and give our plantains the best nature can provide through intentional regenerative agriculture practices. These practices yield the best benefit for plant, planet, and farmers. You can learn more about that process here.

Plantain trees and cassava trees growing in a regenerative agriculture system

The vast array of preparation possibilities for plantains runs as deep as its cultural roots. They’re truly unique in their versatility. While they are, in fact, a fruit, they perform much like a starchy vegetable and lend themselves well in both sweet and savory dishes. When green, the plantain acts similar to a potato and yields its unique starchiness to a host of delectable dishes. At this stage it’s often used as a thickener in soups, stews, and curries, sliced and fried, riced, dried and turned into a flour for baking, roasted, grilled, and a myriad of other ways. Thanks to their unique starch content, they can also be blended to a puree consistency and used to make waffles, pancakes, or flatbreads with no additional flours or binders needed. At its ripest, their sweetness increases and the plantain yields a creamy, sweet texture with unique possibilities somewhat more similar to a banana. Of course, our personal favorite, both green and ripe, they’re also perfect for slicing thin and sending down a conveyor belt of snack perfection to become the best crunchy chip in a world of snacking all its own.

Across the globe you can find so many culturally unique dishes that feature the plantain in all of its versatility. From India’s countless plantain curries and side dishes to Nigeria’s fried plantain “dodo,” Ghana’s richly spiced “kelewele,” traversing oceans to Latin America’s Puerto Rican “mofongo,” Ecuador’s “bolón de verde,” Peru’s unique “chapo” plantain drink, Colombia’s “maduros,” and a host of other equally unique, complex, and delicious dishes in between. This list doesn’t even scratch the surface of the well-traveled plantain’s adventurous culinary repertoire.

As if that wasn’t enough to endear the plantain to you, nutritionally speaking, the plantain is an excellent source of fiber, resistant starch (the greener, the starchier), and complex carbohydrates, perfect for feeding beneficial gut bacteria and contributing to smoother digestion. They’re also rich in minerals like potassium and magnesium, as well as vitamins A, B-6, C, and K.

From humble beginnings to a myriad of palate-pleasing opportunities, the plantain is a truly unique plant that has captured hearts (and stomachs) the world over. We hope you’ll venture more deeply into the world of plantains and all this special fruit has to offer. And as always, you can experience the supreme crunchability and snackability of plantains with our Original and Sweet Plantain chips.

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