Rich in carbohydrates and minerals, the banana is nutritious, palatable, easily digested and delicious. Some people seem to get a feeling of well-being from eating it. This may be due to its link with serotonin, a brain substance crucial in treating depression.
Originating from south-east Asia, the banana travelled to East Africa with Arab traders, landing in the Caribbean and Latin America on ships bound for the New World. The word is derived from banan, the Arabic word for finger.
The leaf of the plant is used in Trinidad and Tobago to wrap meat pies known as pastelles, and in the Far East as wrapping for rice balls and other oriental delicacies.
In some parts of the tropics, banana leaves replace traditional western crockery, especially at large feasts and wedding receptions. This is not just for economic reasons. It is considered more hygienic to eat off a fresh banana leaf than off a plate that has been used by someone else.
Even the core of the banana stem, considered a herbal remedy for dyspepsia, is edible and can be cooked, while in the Philippines, fibres from the trunk are woven to create material for the very elegant local formal wear.
No other plant, with the exception of the coconut palm, is more identifiable with a tropical setting. The tree can be used in landscaping or as a potted plant. Not only is it imposingly ornamental in the garden, but it provides an abundance of fruit or flowers, depending on the variety. Recommended varieties for the home gardener are the giant plantain, the sweet sucrière, the traditional gros michel, the firm lacatan with its lower water content, varieties bearing ornamental flowers, and dwarf types for pot culture.
There is no more versatile fruit than the banana, which can be prepared in a number of ways. As a ripe fruit it is usually eaten raw, or as a breakfast food with cereal. It is used in salads, cakes, bread and desserts. The green fig can be cooked in soups or stews, and fried as chips. It is a special treat in West Indian green fig souse.
The plantain, which looks like an over-sized banana, should be cooked, not eaten raw. It can be fried or baked when ripe to provide tantalizingly tasty dishes.