Setandan pisang

G(r)owing Bananas

I couldn’t wait for the rock wall and grading project to be done to start planting up the yard. I decided to grow some bananas along the jungle edge. Six months later, I’ve already harvested my first banana crop, and I’ve got banana trees towering 15 feet tall, swaying in the breeze.

The varieties of bananas here are amazing: there are about a dozen different types available in the market, and they’re all quite different. We’ve got Pisang Emas (Golden Bananas), Pisang Embon (Dew Bananas), Pisang Berangan (Dream Bananas), Pisang Awak (Your Bananas?), Pisang Tanduk (Horn Bananas), Pisang Keling (Indian Bananas, though careful, keling is a derogatory word for indians), Pisang Serendah (Shorty Bananas), and my personal favorite name, Pisang Pisang (Banana Bananas)! The only banana you can’t find is the chiquita banana they sell back home, the Cavendish variety. In the yard, the giant Pisang Tanduk is ripening. It’s a cooking banana, like a plantain, but sweet when fried. My previous harvest was a pisang serendah. It only grew about four feet tall, not counting the terminal leaf. We couldn’t eat it all fresh, so we gave some to the neighbors, and the rest became banana fritters (cucur) and banana bread. SR makes a mean banana bread.

Bananas are a funny plant. They’re not really trees. The trunk is a green bundle of juicy leaf stalks, with each new leaf emerging all the way from deep inside the plant, kind of like blades of grass. Each plant only produces one clump of bananas before dying. Often the trunk will topple over from the weight. As it is dying, new shoots sucker up from the base. The fruiting body first emerges as this deep purple heart-shaped thing that can be eaten as a vegetable by the way, though noone’s served it to me yet. They sell ’em in the market. The heart slowly opens up and elongates, revealing itty-bitty little bananas.

Beyond the fruit and the heart, the other useful product of the banana is the leaf. The leaves are huge, from 2 to 7 feet long. The leaves are used as wrappers for cooking and sweets. The leaf isn’t just a wrap though: it’s an ingredient. Lots of kuih-muih get a certain flavor from the leaf that is essential to the dish. SR claims the old people in her kampung even discern among different varieties of banana for the flavor the leaf imparts on the dish. There’s an Indian restaurant in town that has weekly banana leaf specials, where for an extra price, you can eat your lunch right off a banana leaf. It’s very popular. A personal favorite banana-wrapped treat is pulut udang, glutinous rice stuffed with spicy dried shrimp and toasted in a banana leaf. One of those units warming up in the picture will do you right for breakfast. Or minum pagi. Or minum petang. Did I mention I’ve put on five pounds since moving here?

[Update] Bananas can be used in the ornamental landscape as well. There are number of ornamental varieties that have been developed, including Pisang Derhaka, the bananas of treachery, or maybe, the bananas of rebellion, or maybe even, Uppity Bananas. The poor banana’s crime to deserve a name like that: the heart that points up to the sky instead of bending toward the ground like a good banana.