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The wonderfully versatile banana

A century ago, the lowly banana was considered a rare and exotic delicacy in both the United States and Europe. When the first shipment arrived in the United States from Central America in the early 19th century, crowds gathered at the docks in New York, to view it. Today it is considered the world’s favorite fruit, available anywhere at a reasonable price, and it is consumed by almost every nationality.

Second only to milk as a universal staple, the banana today is common to every culture. Americans and Canadians, who consume about one-third of the world’s banana exports, eat 22 pounds of the fruit per person each year. In the United Arab Emirates, they eat 90 pounds of imported bananas per person each year.

Usually eaten as is, out of hand, the banana is also used extensively in salads and desserts. A banquet in China often ends with bananas that have been lightly fried in butter, then coated with sugar syrup and sesame seeds and dipped in ice water, which chills the sugar glaze in a toffee-like crust. Some Latin American countries puree the fruit with fresh pineapple, sugar, and cinnamon and bake it into a thick pudding, which is served with cream cheese. And, either fried or boiled, bananas serve as a nourishing vegetable. In East and West Africa, the bananas are roasted, stewed, or made into soup. In Uganda and Tanzania, the bananas are also used to brew beer.

Thought to be the world’s oldest known fruit, the banana plant dates back to prehistoric times. As early as 327 B.C., Alexander the Great discovered bananas being cultivated in the Indus Valley in India.

The banana plant was an exclusively Asian delicacy until the seventh century when Arab traders carried it to West Africa.

The banana has influenced the economic and cultural life of every country it has touched. A person is said to “go bananas” when he oversteps the boundaries of reasonable behavior. Burlesque comedians who got top billing were known as “top bananas.” And “yes, we have no bananas,” which was said to have quoted a fruit vendor in New York City, became a song that was a topselling record in 1923.

Probably most important of all, no food offers more nutritional value than the banana. It is used to control hypertension and also as a vitamin supplement, since it contains vitamins A, B, and C. And despite folklore to the contrary, the average six-inch banana has only about 85 calories—no more than an orange or apple, and it is low in sodium and has no cholesterol.

More than 100 varieties of banana are produced commercially. In countries where the banana is plentiful, no part of the plant is wasted. After the fruit has been harvested, the stem, leaves, flowers, and root are used to make flour, vinegar, paper, dye, fuel, and animal fodder. At fiestas in the Philippines, country women are often seen holding a young banana leaf like a parasol to shield their faces from the sun.