We may call them plantains, to differentiate them from bananas, but there is no real botanical distinction between bananas and plantains. Plantains are a large cultivar of the banana family, generally higher in starch than their smaller cousins, so are most often cooked before eating, while they are still under-ripe. Thus a plantain makes a great side starch dish that is not sweet; an immature plantain has a texture and flavour somewhat similar to that of a potato when cooked. The skin of an immature plantain is thick and green, but as the fruit ripens it turns a colour similar to bananas, and the starches are converted to sugar, so they can be eaten raw as well, and in fact taste like a banana.
Plantains originate from South Asia and Western Africa, and quickly spread to countries with similar climate and growing conditions, like Central and South America. As they bear fruit all year round, they are reliable, cheap staple available in every season; when under-ripe they are boiled, fried, mashed, or sliced thin and made into chips. When they are ripe and their skins are yellow and slightly mottled like a cheetah, they peel as easily as a ripe banana and are eaten like a banana, and are a common food for babies and the elderly.
Our favourite way to prepare plantains is also the simplest; tostones. You can choose under-ripe fruit or plantains that are just beginning to soften. Anything riper and they might mush out too much and be difficult to work with when you flatten them, and will also be quite sweet, which is maybe not the flavor profile you want for a side dish. Tostones are fried once on each side, then flattened and fried again on both sides right before serving. Served as a side dish with pork and black beans, or chicken, or fish, or eaten all by themselves with a little salt and a yogurt dipping sauce, tostones are a great trick to have up your sleeve.
Makes about 12 tostones
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Cut the skin of the plantain with a paring knife; remove and discard. Slice plantain into one-inch pieces. Heat frying pan to medium and add 1 tablespoon of oil. Place plantain pieces in pan and fry on one side until golden brown, about a minute. Turn pieces over and fry on the other side. Remove plantains from the pan and set aside.
When you are ready to eat, place each piece on a flat surface and flatten gently with the side of a broad knife or a plate or bottom of a heavy frying pan; flatten to about a third of its original thickness Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in pan and use a spatula to place plantain in pan, fry for a minute then turn over. Remove from heat and transfer to serving dish, serve while hot.
Medium ripe plantain and medium ripe banana
The second frying
poached chicken and chicken rice and plantain tostones