New, exotic varieties are making their way to local stores


August 21, 1991|By Steven Raichlen

THERE ONCE WAS A TIME WHEN A BANANA WAS -- WELL -- A BANANA. IT LOOKED like a banana: yellow, bow-shaped, and 6 to 8 inches long. It tasted like a banana: sweet, musky, with just a hint of tartness. You used it like a banana, slicing it onto your breakfast cereal or topping it with ice cream to make a banana split.

If you think that's all there is to bananas, it's time to look again.

Today's consumer may be confronted with a growing variety of exotic bananas: tiny finger bananas that are no larger than your pinky; giant Hawaiian bananas that are as big around as your arm; apple bananas that taste like a cross between a Chiquita and a Macintosh. There is even a type of banana -- the plantain -- which is cooked like a potato. Red bananas, recognizable by their sunset-colored peel, are shorter and fatter than normal Chiquitas and are very sweet when ripe.

More and more of these exotic bananas are turning up at restaurants and specialty shops featuring Caribbean, Latin American and Asian foods. (Locally, plantains, which grocers say are more abundant in winter than in summer around Baltimore, are nevertheless carried by such specialty shops as the West Indian Import House in Pikesville and the Big Boy World Wide Food Market near Lexington Market. Eddie's supermarket on Roland Avenue has red bananas. Ten area stores of Mars Super Markets Inc., carry both plantains and the red bananas.)

Most North Americans eat only ripe bananas. But in the Caribbean and Latin America, bananas are used when hard and green, when soft and brown, and at every stage in between.Most Americans eat bananas in their natural state -- raw -- or baked in banana bread. In other cultures, bananas are thinly sliced and fried like potato chips, boiled and mashed like potatoes, and even grilled like steak.

What are some of the bananas of the future? To find out I visited Bill Lessard, who might be called the "Big Banana" of Florida's tropical fruit growers. A former fighter pilot, Mr. Lessard grows more than 50 varieties on his 7-acre farm in Redlands, an hour south of Miami. "I've prowled through every jungle in the world, looking for new bananas," says Mr. Lessard, whose impressive collection bears out his claim.

NB For those of us who think that bananas come in one basic shape

and size, Mr. Lessard's plantation offers quite an education. Consider the Indonesian finger banana. A single bunch from this tree might contain 1,000 bananas, each no bigger than your baby finger. On the other end of the spectrum is the African rhino horn banana, a veritable behemoth that attains lengths of 2 feet and weighs up to 3 pounds. Apiece! "The tree only produces 10 to 15 bananas a year," says Mr. Lessard.

"Here's an up-and-comer," he adds, pointing to a banana that is lime green, 6-to-8 inches long, and as fat around as my forearm. Its origin is Tahiti, though for marketing purposes Mr. Lessard is calling it the "Hawaiian banana." "It's absolutely beautiful for frying," he says. "I can't grow enough of them to meet the demand."

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