Bananas are a sweet fruit that grows in clusters on the banana plant. They are the fourth most widely consumed food on the planet, following rice, wheat and corn. Approximately 130 countries around the world grow bananas, either for domestic consumption or exporting. No other fruit crop is as widespread.
Bananas grow on banana plants in tropical climates. Banana plants are tall (around 6 to 8 feet) with large, thick rubbery leaves around 3 feet long. Banana plants are not trees, although many people mistake them for such. They are more closely related to the orchid family than other fruits. The fruit of the banana plant grows in a long hanging "bunch" made up of tiers, known as a "hand." Each tier usually has around 20 individual banana fruits. A typical dessert banana, the kind most often seen at the grocery store, can be anywhere from green (not ripe) to bright yellow (ripe). Dessert bananas have been bred so that they are seedless, although wild bananas hold several large seeds within the white flesh. There are several variations of the traditional yellow banana, including plantains, green cooking bananas, Hawaiian bananas, manzano, and the red banana known as makabu.
Banana plants are thought to have been domesticated in the tropical jungles of Southeast Asia. Archaeological evidence reveals that as far back as 5000 BCE, banana plant cultivation and domestication was being practiced in New Guinea and spread throughout the region. Africans started to cultivate bananas in the sixth century A.D. and archaeologists believe that early traders between the two regions introduced the banana at that time. Banana cultivation spread throughout Africa and into the Middle East, following the spread of Islam throughout Northern Europe and even into Muslim-occupied Spain. The banana made its way to Central America via the Portuguese in the 1500s, where colonists started plantations in Brazil, Central America and the Caribbean. Immense banana plantations sprang up in the 1800s and early 1900s and created many trade and export empires for the region. Today, India is the top banana producing nation followed by Brazil, but Ecuador exports the most bananas, followed by the Philippines and Costa Rica.
Bananas are used in many cultural dishes around the world. Some of the more popular dessert recipes that highlight bananas are banana bread, banana cream pie, bananas Foster, banana pudding and banana splits. Bananas are included in many dessert dishes in Southeast Asia as well. "Banh chuoi" is a Vietnamese banana cake that is made with bananas, coconut milk, sugar, shredded coconut, butter and eggs. The cake is baked until it develops a crispy exterior, or it can be steamed. "Pisan goreng" is a Malaysian dish of fried bananas. Bananas are dipped in batter and then fried in oil. Spices such as cinnamon and cloves are sprinkled on and the pisan goreng is served with fresh cream and sugar. A fried banana dish called "aloco" is also popular in West Africa. Bananas and plantains are often included in West African soups and stews.
Bananas contain potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin B6 and some amounts of iron, zinc and folic acid. At only 93 calories, bananas also have no fat content. Some of the benefits of bananas include soothing upset stomachs and contributing to a low cholesterol diet because of the high fiber content.
Banana plants can be used for more than food. Banana paper is made from the banana bark fiber and unused fruits and is popular as an artistic medium in some countries. Banana plants are also used to make fabric and textiles, especially in Japan. The high quality fiber from the leaves and shoots results in being boiled in lye that creates soft, thin fibers. Japanese banana fabric is carefully made by hand and is used for everything from kimonos to linens. Many Nepalese rugs are made from bleached and dried fibers of the banana plant that are hand-knotted into silk-like rugs.