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Ingredients

Savory or Sweet, Plantains Do It All

Plantains, salt, oil. It's all I need to bring me home.
By Published Oct. 26, 2021

Throughout the Caribbean, plantains (pronounced plan-tins, rather than plan-tains) are a fried, sweet, staple side dish. They are popular in other parts of the world including Latin America (called maduros), Africa (dodo in Nigeria), and Southeast Asia. Plantains are also one of the few dishes that my Belizean-Nigerian family have in common, down to the recipe: as simple as peeling off the skin, slicing, and frying in vegetable oil. No extra ingredients or garnishes are needed.

When a person says plantains, it's almost always in reference to yellow plantains—ripe, softer, sweeter than unripe versions. This makes for easier prep. Green unripe plantains are harder to peel because the skin is tough; they yield a firm texture after cooking and taste unsweet. Truthfully, unripe plantains are bland, but adding anywhere from a sprinkle to a heavy dash of salt makes them taste savory. Botanically, both yellow and green varietals classify as musaceae, part of the banana family of plants, but unlike bananas, plantains are not sold as a bunch and must be thoroughly cooked before consuming.

As a child, I watched my Belizean grandmother Selsie fry plantains. I always hovered in the kitchen so I could eat them as soon as they came out of the pan, burning my tongue. I didn't care. Selsie preferred to buy plantains with dark spots, which meant they were sweeter and almost over-ripe (just as you want very ripe bananas for banana bread).

She prepped them by cutting off the ends then sliced the plantain in half lengthwise. She took one half and made an incision deep enough to cut through the thick skin but only barely grazing the actual plantain. It was an art. Selsie discarded the skin then sliced the raw plantain about a centimeter thick, again, lengthwise, or as she would say, “long ways.” This usually yielded five or six slices that loosely resembled an oval with narrower ends at the top and bottom. She preferred frying plantains in long strips, though  slicing styles vary culturally. In Jamaican, Puerto Rican, and Peruvian restaurants I’ve dined at, plantains are sliced on the diagonal as well but much thicker which allows for deep frying. Both my Belizean and Nigerian family members always pan-fry plantains.

Later in life I learned my grandmother refused to eat dinner without plantains before she immigrated to America. I found this amusing, since there have been times I almost passed on a plate of food for lack of plantains. They have become a must-have dish for me as they were for her. While plantains are technically a side dish, in my family, they are a staple with all meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Occasionally, they are a snack too.

Pan frying one or two plantains doesn't take much time. It takes me about 30 minutes to fry three from start to finish, mostly because both sides of the plantain need to be cooked on medium heat. In my house, we don’t eat all in one sitting, so my trick is to wrap a serving size—four pieces is the ideal amount for my family—in aluminum foil, then freeze. After reheating in the microwave for about 30 seconds, they will still taste fresh.

When cooked, plantains remind me of banana fritters, another dish my grandmother prepared. Banana fritters are crispier whereas ripe plantains are soft. After frying a batch, I place plantains on a paper napkin-covered plate; this absorbs most of the oil if left to cool, however my zeal for eating them immediately allows me to savor the sweetness underscored by a hint of oil. Plantains are my amuse-bouche and prep my palate for the main dish that will follow.

Plantains have become more popular and accessible in America, and can be found at local grocery stores, specialty food markets, even at some Targets and Walmarts.

What started out as a favorite childhood dish is now a top choice for my own child too. Despite his customized sous chef apron and best effort, he's too young to truly help in the kitchen. He does however, stand a few feet away from the stove waiting for the first batch of plantains to finish and, like me, rarely waits for them to cool off; he opts to “cool” them with his breath, while in his mouth, in between saying, “Hot. Hot.” The closeness that my grandmother and I shared included our love for plantains, which continues today. Already, he has become a fourth-generation plantain lover and will hopefully be inclined to pass the tradition of fried plantains to future kin.

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