It started off with the fried plantain. Seven of us – all Black – sat around a table in a Jamaican café discussing the joy, and for some the horror, of eating the delicacy.
The café is the end spot of my Black History Walks in Toronto. Two women from the southern USA, Mississippi and Alabama, I think, were mystified about the deliciousness of eating ripe fried plantain. It was not part of their southern cuisine.
Plantain is one of those foods that shows the history of the African Diaspora. Its story is less well known compared to that of say sugar, cotton and tobacco. For starters, there is often confusion about what exactly a plantain is and its relation to bananas. In grocery stores I have seen plantains labeled as cooking bananas or plantain bananas. The two belong to the same Musa species. Scientifically there is little difference between them. Both are old crops in the human ladder that were domesticated eons ago.
The Musa species is native to Papua New Guinea and has spread throughout the tropics. The plant reached West Africa about 4,000 years ago and from there to the rest of the continent. How it reached West Africa hints at forgotten pre-historic trade routes between Africa and Asia.
Culturally there is a huge difference between how plantain and bananas are consumed. Plantains are generally bigger, starchier and less sweet than bananas. Whether ripe or green, plantains are cooked before they are eaten.
To me, fried plantain is sweet and soft with a delicate flavour. To one of the Americans it was simply mushy, sticky and bland. She had tried eating several times. This time, she pursed her lips, and declined.
Of the seven Black people around the table, by nationality, there were three Canadians and four Americans. If arranged in a Venn diagram, the biggest overlap was the four people with Caribbean heritage, two each from the Canadian and American circles.
Fried plantain was comfort food to the Caribbean sub-group, who all knew it as a delicious snack or as a side dish to lunch or dinner.
And there was another subdivision in the group. This time within the Caribbean sub-group, as it contained people from Guyana, Jamaica and Costa Rica. Three spoke English as their mother tongue, while the Costa Rican spoke Spanish. As a member of the Afro-Latino community in the USA, he was a minority several times over. He was tired of explaining that he was Black and Latino. The twin pillars of his heritage were as indivisible as the heart.
Fried plantain was not part of the African Canadian woman’s cooking culture. She got to know it when she moved to Toronto and started hanging out with new Caribbean friends. Her family came to Canada over two centuries ago. They were part of the flood of refugees who fled the USA due to the American Revolution. These Loyalist scorned independence and wanted to continue living in a colony that was loyal to the British royals.
She did not know if her ancestors came as slaves – part of the property or the white Loyalists. Or if they came freed – the prize for serving on the British side during the revolutionary war.
The Black Loyalists stronghold was Africville, Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada. The community thrived in the town until the 1960s. Then it was bulldozed. Slum clearance according to the official rationale. The attempt to make the Black community disappear is part of the long tradition of anti-Black racism in Canada.
Like all the people around our table, plantain is not indigenous to the Americas or the Caribbean. The African staple sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the same slave ships. The crop was easy to grow, high in starch and provided energy to those worked by the whip.
Bananas are eaten all over the world. Plantain has a more limited culinary appeal. The largest plantain eaters are still in Africa, in Nigeria, Rwanda and the Congo.
I take green or semi-ripe plantains with me on camping trips. The vegetable is easy to carry, does not bruise easily and won’t spoil. As it ripens the plantain becomes sweeter. On camping trips I serve it sliced and fried as a starter for dinner. With lots of explanations on what it is and how to eat it. Plantain is also delicious when roasted, boiled or mashed and served with a rich, thick and spicy stew.
Fried plantain. A gorgeous snack that encapsulates the history and cooking cultures of the African Diaspora. Around the café table, with reggae playing in the background, it sparked many discussions on what it means to be Black in America and in Canada.
Photo credit: Homemade Zagat