Samui Wining & Dining
Going Bananas

Samui may be famous for its coconuts but you can’t beat bananas.

 

36As you fly into Samui Airport, what do you see? The glimmering turquoise waters, dense tropical vegetation and, especially noticeable, palm trees. In fact, if you walk anywhere on Samui, you’ll discover that it’s basically one HUGE coconut plantation. The tell-tale green fronds are everywhere and the first holidaymaker to string up a hammock probably did so using the trunks of two palms. And on Samui, when it comes to food that falls from trees, it’s the coconut that carries off all the prizes for popularity.

 

Which is a bit unfair really. They may not be as tall or as regal as coconut palms but banana trees are everywhere, too! In fact, there’re thousands of them. Sometimes it can seem that every garden you pass has banana plants in them.

 

Many houses are almost entirely surrounded by banana trees, with the leaves providing both protection from the sun as well as privacy. And if you’re staying in a villa, you may be startled out of your sleep by the sound of a banana tree suddenly falling to the ground with a massive thud. This doesn’t mean there’s some monstrous animal out in the garden, it’s probably just the bananas themselves have become so heavy that they’ve over-balanced the entire tree, pulling it down. Which is something that routinely happens.

 

And most folk on Samui go bananas … for bananas. You’ll occasionally see complete market stalls which hardly sell anything else but masses and masses of this prized fruit. Sometimes, when you’re at a petrol station, you’ll see bunches of them for sale in the forecourt – people have so many that there are plenty left over.

 

The Thais cultivate many varieties of bananas. If you’re from the West, you’ll probably have seen few other varieties apart from the Cavendish, which is exported all over the world. Here, in Thailand, you can find far more diversity, with almost 30 different varieties being grown. And the huge, broad leaves of the banana plants are ideal for wrapping just about everything. They can also be intricately folded and used as containers, whilst Thai cuisine relies on them as wrappers for food which can then be steamed. The leaves add their own taste to what’s being cooked. And they can naturally be used as trays for food, too.

 

Banana leaves also crop up in various rituals and can be used for weddings as well as when someone is going to die. They’re also part of floral offerings made to monks and you’ll often see them placed in spirit houses. The trees themselves can become the object of ritual, too, and at times also acquire a certain mystique. Occasionally, you’ll find bananas growing where they shouldn’t – lie straight out of the ‘trunk’. This was considered very auspicious and if such a tree is discovered, the locals will tie brightly coloured ribbons wrapped around it to mark it as being special. Many Thais believe spirits dwell in trees like this.

Superstition aside, the locals really do know how to make the best use of a banana tree. The sap is popular as a dye, whilst the discarded banana skins are pulped up and transformed into sauces, fertilizers and even a kind of wine. The flower of the plant is also eaten whilst the massive stalks are used for carrying objects and can also be quickly whittled into a variety of children’s toys. The fibre is deftly woven to make string and rope and this is then used for a whole host of items, from woven place mats and bags through to hats. One of the best known uses is to make ‘krathong’, the tiny rafts that are launched into rivers, lakes and the sea during the Loy Krathong celebrations in November, when Thais give thanks to the water spirits for supplying this vital element during the previous year.

But bananas in general have made much longer journeys just down local rivers. It’s widely believed that bananas are native to Central America but they do, in fact, come from Malaysia. The fruit quickly became popular with travelers who took them back home as a curiosity. And, of course, bananas could be easily cultivated anywhere that was tropical. Gradually, the humble banana began to move westwards. So began a journey of thousands of miles. Slave traders from Arabia introduced bananas to Africa and from there they were taken to both the Canary Islands and the Caribbean. It wasn’t until 1876 that they were formally introduced into North America, where they’ve been popular ever since. Unfortunately, the fruit, at first so exotic, soon became a cheap staple and one that has been taken much for granted ever since.

Which is probably why many people overlook bananas when they come to Thailand. Sure, the coconut palm is more striking but bananas with their enormous waterproof leaves are just as much part of the tropical vegetation. And when it comes down to nutrition, the banana packs a mighty punch. Bananas are said to be good for your heart, eyes and bones, as well as benefiting a host of body functions. They’re also an important source of potassium, vitamin B6 and C. So, the basic message seems to be: eat bananas and you’ll improve your health. One things for sure, if Samui was cut off from the world, one of the mainstays of life would become the banana with its highly nutritious properties; a fact that the native islanders already recognize.

And they also know that bananas are easier to grow, harvest and prepare than coconut palms. After all, you don’t have to shin up a 30-foot high tree trunk to get a banana and then use a machete to open it. Samui may be famous for its coconuts but when the locals get hungry – they go bananas!

Dimitri Waring

 


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