Plantains, "potatoes of the air" or "cooking bananas" are the fruit of the Musa Paradisiaca, a type of banana plant. Plantains are more starchy than sweet and must be cooked before being eaten. They are a staple crop in much of Africa, and are served boiled, steamed, baked, or fried. Plantains grilled over a charcoal fire are popular street food in many African cities. In the Congo river region, plantain bananas—peeled, sliced, and boiled, or cut into rondelles and fried in oil—are called makemba (singular: likemba).
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Boiled plantains are more common than fried plantains (and they are better for you, and less expensive to prepare). Serve boiled plantains as a side dish for any African meal.
To boil plantains: peel and cut each plantain into two or three pieces, boil until tender.
In Ghana, plantains are mixed with spices and fried in hot oil to make Kelewele.
In Eastern Africa, plantains are fermented to make a kind of beer or wine (see Pombe, Tembo, and Máwá).
Not out of Africa: Plantains (and many varieties of sweet bananas) are common throughout tropical Africa. However banana plants are not native to Africa. Bananas originated and were first cultivated in the islands of Southeast Asia (today's Malaysia and Indonesia). They arrived in Africa during the first millennium AD, brought by Malay-Polynesian peoples who settled in Madagascar, or perhaps by Arabs or Indians who traded and settled on Africa's East Coast. Banana cultivation is especially common in Africa's great lakes region, notably Uganda. From there the practice of banana cultivation was spread by Bantu people to the rest of tropical Africa; indeed it was plantain and banana cultivation, along with the knowledge of ironworking (to make better tools and weapons), that allowed the Bantu people to dominate Central and Southern Africa.
Living off the Country, published in Nigeria in 1942, was a cookbook for Europeans in Africa that featured local recipes and foodstuffs. These instructions are reproduced in Tales from the Dark Continent (Charles Allen, editor, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979) which collects various documents related to British colonialism in Africa.
Banana Chips (A substitute for potato chips with fried fish) Peel green bananas and slice lengthways or crossways as desired. Sprinkle with pepper and salt and fry up quickly in fat or lard. Pile on a dish and serve immediately.
In the late 1850's Richard Francis Burton explored Zanzibar and the nearby Eastern Africa mainland. In this excerpt from Zanzibar; City, Island, and Coast (London: Tinsley Brothers, 18, Catherine St. Strand; 1872) he writes about plantains in Africa:
The Musa, which an old traveller describes as an assemblage of leaves interwoven and twisted together so neatly, that they form a plant about 15 spans high is an aboriginal of Hindostan, and possibly East Africa, where however, the seeds might easily have been floated from the East : it grows almost spontaneously in Unyamwezi and upon the shores of the great inland lakes. Here the banana [and plantain], which maturing rapidly affords a perennial supply of fruit, and whose enormous rate of produce has been described by many writers, is the staff of savage life, windy as the acorn which is supposed to have fed our forefathers in Europe. . . . these East Africans apply the plantain to a vast variety of uses, and allow no part of it to be wasted. The stem when green gives water enough to quench the wanderer's thirst and to wash his hands ; the parenchyma has somewhat the taste of cucumber, and sun-dried it is employed for fuel. The fresh cool leavesare converted into rain-pipes, spoons, plates, and even bottles : desiccated they make thatch, and a substitute for wrapping-papers ; and some have believed that they were the original fig-leaves of the first man and his wife. The trunk-fibre does good service in al the stages between thread and cord : the fruiy yields wine, sugar, and vinegar, besides bread and vegetable, and even the flower is reduced to powder and mixed with snuff. Never transplanted and allowed to grow from its own suckers, this banana has now degenerated : it is easy to see, however, that it comes of noble stock. In parts of the interior the people have during a portion of the year little else to live upon but this fruit, boiled, baked, and dried . . .
[Chapter VII - The March to Fuga. Ascent of the Highlands of East Africa . . . (Tabora)]
James George Frazer was a professor of social anthropology at Liverpool who spent a good part of his life writing and adding to his major work, The Golden Bough (Abridged edition; New York: The Macmillan Co., 1922; first published 1890; various editions since then). He included this example from Uganda's Ganda (also called Baganda or Waganda) people in his chapter on "The Influence of the Sexes on Vegetation". (The subsequent portion of the text is not suitable for inclusion in a website used by school children.)
The Baganda of Central Africa believe so strongly in the intimate relation between the intercourse of the sexes and the fertility of the ground that among them a barren wife is generally sent away, because she is supposed to prevent her husband’s garden from bearing fruit. On the contrary, a couple who have given proof of extraordinary fertility by becoming the parents of twins are believed by the Baganda to be endowed with a corresponding power of increasing the fruitfulness of the plantain-trees, which furnish them with their staple food. Some little time after the birth of the twins a ceremony is performed, the object of which clearly is to transmit the reproductive virtue of the parents to the plantains.
(Chapter XI -- The Influence of the Sexes on Vegetation)
American missionary Robert Hamill Nassau wrote that boiled plantains were his favorite, in My Ogowe: Being a Narrative of Daily Incidents During Sixteen Years in Equatorial West Africa (The Neale Publishing Company, New York, 1914)
Even after the long interval to the present time, and tasting every variety of vegetable, I know none that I enjoy more than boiled ripe plantains. (Chapter III -- Prospecting -- 1874)
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Congo Cookbook recipes using Plantain
Tim tim dsu amada teomo, si ehe saomo mli yo. (Ga or Accra) : To brag is not to plant bananas : in clearing the ground about them, it (the work) consists.
(from: Wit and Wisdom from West Africa, Richard Francis Burton)
Mfanko ukom imana ukom, erikpuk arata imana arata. (Efik) : One plantain pulled off the bunch does not finish the plantain [tree] ; biting off a little of the Arata (plantain or koko prepared for preservation) does not finish the Arata. N.B. -- Meaning, a little from your abundance will not ruin you. (ibid)