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The plantain is a larger, more savory member of the Musa banana family, specifically named Musa paradisiaca. Known as platanos in Spanish, this fruit has been used in a range of dishes for thousands of years of tropical civilization, in equatorial regions as disparate as South Asia, Africa and Latin America. One of the more ubiquitous ways to eat this fruit is to slice it thinly and deep fry it as plantain chips — resulting in a snack that is starchier and less sweet than banana chips, but much less bland than traditional potato chips.
Historical analyses into the origin of plantains and bananas have these 300 or so varieties of trees originating in or around Malaysia, as far back as the dawn of agriculture. According to the University of California at Los Angeles' Botanical Garden, as early civilizations spread east from Asia with the Polynesians, and west with the European exploration of America, so went the plantain and banana trees. Though plantain chips are most famously made in Latin American cultures, African and Asian cultures also have prepared fruits like this.
The key to creating a delicious batch of plantain chips is using ones that are slightly unripened, with the fruit's characteristically thick peel still a dark hue of green. Once the peel turns yellow and finally black, the fruit's sugars have developed to a point at which it would better serve a dessert. Unlike bananas, plantains are rarely eaten raw.
The preparation is straightforward. Peeled, unripened plantains are sliced thinly and dropped into a deep-fryer. Once they have taken on a crispy texture, after just a minute or two, the plantain chips are sprinkled with salt as they dry on a paper towel. Some skip the oil and decide to bake their chips instead for a healthier snack. Others add more diverse flavorings to the finished product, such as cayenne pepper, citrus juice or zest, and the Latin American spice known as annatto, which adds the flavor of nutmeg and a distinctive orange tint.
Plantain chips are just one of many ways that Caribbean, Latin, African, India and Asian chefs prepare plantain. Each region has several dishes that make use of this fruit, which also can be boiled, baked, steamed and grilled. In Puerto Rico, for instance, a popular offering is called mofongo, which has chefs mash fried plantains into a stuffing fortified with meat stock, garlic, onions, oil, pork, bacon and other assorted vegetables and meats. In Africa, a mashed plantain dish called fufu is more likely to be served with dinner than plain mashed potatoes.
The first time I ever had plantain chips was on a flight from Aruba to Miami. We were all served a bag of the chips and a soft drink. I had heard of plantains, but I assumed they were sweet like bananas. I didn't like the first few plantain chips I ate, but eventually I realized I was eating something savory, more like a slightly sweetened potato chip. I don't buy plantain chips as a regular snack at home, but I won't turn them down if they are offered as a side dish or party food item.
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