I'm not sure what the floral or fruit emblem of Sri Lanka is but after my recent travels there it is the banana cluster that is imprinted definitively in my mind. There, they have what seem like dedicated banana shops, where 50kg stems hang, carrying upwards of one hundred fingers. Road side in Colombo, in towns and more remote regions of the country, these yellow and green fruit installations swing from hooks and sprout from banana plants. My Colombo guesthouse host matter-of-factly told me that Sri Lanka has more varieties of bananas than any other country.
This fact I would not dispute after visiting the commercial capital's Manning Market, the main produce market just adjacent to Colombo Fort railway station. The building comprises a series of dirt floor halls linked by a corridor of arches, which viewed from one end creates a kind of labyrinthine optical illusion of never-ending-ness.The first two halls are appropriated for bananas. A cool dark air prevails, the odd long-life fluoro bulb emitting enough light for money to accurately change hands. Green walls in part camouflage the produce and from the dark shadows of the hanging fruit shine the white teeth of the banana vendors.
While botany journals state that Sri Lanka has somewhere in the vicinity of 27 banana varieties, some wild and not all of them traded by the vendors here. Various hues of green and yellow are in evidence and sometimes the colour is related to the degree of ripeness and sometimes not. Cultivar size is another variant, with huge Cavendish bananas playing parent to the country's sweetest and smallest variety called the 'Seeni Kesel'. Some may be surprised to know that not all bananas are sweet; in fact, in Sri Lanka, the varieties commonly referred to as plantains elsewhere, are used in curries here, taking on qualities more like a potato.
Not all bananas are green or yellow either. New Yorker writer Mike Peed wrote in 2011 of the eclectic range of the fruit,
"There are fuzzy bananas whose skins are bubblegun pink;
green-and-white striped bananas with pulp the color of orange sherbet;
bananas that, when cooked, taste like strawberries. The Double Mahoi
plant can produce two bunches at once. The Chinese name of the aromatic
Go San Heong banana means 'You can smell it from the next mountain.' The
fingers on one banana plant grow fused; another produces bunches of a
thousand fingers, each only an inch long."
I wonder how many visitors to Sri Lanka, like me, end up with a couple of bananas still in their hand luggage on the way out of the country.
NEWS 1: Recently, along with the God, I was interviewed by Terry Blackburn, CEO of the first food magazine dedicated to Asian cuisines, Asia Eater. It's about time we had such a publication! The region has so much to offer but often just seems on the periphery of food discourse in the developed world. Either that or it is just mined for its exotica. Anyway, the podcast can be listened to here, along with several others. Let's hope the magazine is a success.
NEWS 2: In October, me and my mate Tracey Lister and her other half, Andreas Pohl, co-authors of two (soon to be three) cookbooks on Vietnamese food, are headed down to Bali for the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. We are reprising an event we conducted at a Hanoi Writers Event in 2011, called 'Cooks Books and Blogs'. If you're in Bali on October 12th, come and eat a delicious Vietnamese meal (designed by Tracey) and listen to us prattle on about eating, cooking and writing about it in Vietnam.