Thursday, October 20, 2011

Banana Flower Power

One month ago, when I was in the Brazilian mountain town of Ouro Preto, I came across the last dregs of the Thursday farmers' market, a somewhat small but very high quality gathering for its being so close to the countryside. In one of the almost-bare shallow wooden boxes, I saw the scattered forms of what I recognized to be banana flowers, the heartsblood cone that dangles from the end of a thick umbilical cord extending down from the prized banana bunch that hangs off the brilliant green plant (there's a lot of dangling and hanging involved in banana plants, a lot to fit into one sentence, much less droop off of one plant). If you live in a tropical place, you see these all the time, but I'd never thought about eating them (though apparently they're used in Vietnamese cuisine—shows how much I know about my own mother culture. Banana flower salads are also very much associated with Thai and Indian cuisine).

In English we know these as banana flowers, or the more lyrical banana blossoms (adds a fragrant quality to a menu), but sometimes things get darker and they are known as banana hearts. In Portuguese, they also like to say "flor" and "coração" de bananeira but also sometimes use the gross-cute "umbigo," which means "bellybutton," or "navel" if you prefer a more elegant feel.

I asked the farmer and the cleaning crew what I was supposed to do with them, and their eyes got all dreamy as they listed all their favorite banana flower dishes, mostly variations on a sautee with ground meat. Here were the basic preparation instructions they offered:

- peel off the outer layers until you get to the creamy cone in the middle
- wash, slice in half, then in little slivers
- then drop in a pot of water and bring to a boil three times
- yes three times, dumping the water out each time and starting anew
(this is to take away the mature flower's strong bitter flavor)
- strain and then sautee with some ground meat, maybe some onions

It seemed a little labor intensive to me for just a couple flower hearts, but they all threw their hands up in the air and exclaimed, "Vale a pena! Você vai gostar!" ("It's worth it! You're gonna like it!")

So I bought a couple blossoms and tried it at home. First, I peeled back the layers, one scab-colored petal at a time. It felt a little gruesome, like mutilating some living thing, the flower is so heavy and almost fleshy in its thickness. Also, while we're peeling back layers, I should mention that the "flower" is actually an inflorescence,, which starts out as the stem, known technically as the peduncle (how I love that awkward word), and then starts to mutate as clusters of flowers grow off of it.

I am really not the person to be explaining what I've only just read and half-absorbed from wikipedia and I think my head is going to explode from this sentence on the nature of the inflorescence's mutation or "modification," as the entry calls it:

The modifications can involve the length and the nature of the internodes and the phyllotaxis, as well as variations in the proportions, compressions, swellings, adnations, connations and reduction of main and secondary axes.

That is to say: I've shone a strobe light on the situation and I leave you to your own biological modifications...

It was morbidly fascinating and mildly disturbing to peel away the layers and to examine the delicate proto-bananas (flowers?) that looked like tiny monkey fingers, then to peel each one of these fragile "fingers" off of the cone. I guess I don't feel this way when peeling artichoke, which is the most similar thing I can think of, because its colors and forms aren't so uncannily animal-like as the banana flower's.

After awhile, the purple petals fell away to reveal a creamier center that looked almost painted, with its dark-stained tip. Slicing the inflorescence open into two spearheads revealed even more traces of ghostly bananas that would never be. I wasn't quite sure what the proper slicing technique was and have never been good at making precise cuts, so I kind of just hacked the whole thing into diagonal slivers, some thicker than others, some pointy and others more of a blunt, rectangular shape.

Then during the labor intensive boiling session, I prepared some sides. After boiling the fairy-tale number of times (why do important events in fairy tales always happen in threes?), I placed the slivers into a plastic flower bowl (visual pun intended) to await their next adventure.

I had the idea to sautee the banana flower with garlic, cilantro, and a little salt, which turned out to be a stroke of tasty-time genius. 

Opting out of the meat enthusiasm from the farmers' market, I served (to myself) the cilantro-sauteed banana slivers with sliced cucumber, okra stewed with tomatoes, and one of my favorite South American roots, batata baroa, aka mandioquinha, or the less graceful sounding "Peruvian parsnip," a tuber with a delicately sweet yet distinctively potato-y taste and a cheery, translucent egg-yolk color.

And what did the banana flower taste like?

Not at all like a flower or any other vegetable I've had, but more like a mushroom, in its meatiness and a certain umami quality (that elusive fifth flavor), though with a lighter texture and flavor than a mushroom. It was difficult to detect a banana aroma, though I imagine this is stronger when eating more tender, uncooked flowers that are often used in Southeast Asian and South Asian banana blossom salads. Yes, I liked it, and yes, it was worth the effort, though perhaps not a daily endeavor.

A while back I wrote a post on edible flowers in which I quoted Adorno and Horkheimer on the way that eating flowers is something of a gesture toward the aesthetics of food detached from the practical injunctions of "rationally planned eating." The banana flower is of a different edible order, it seems. Seeming more aesthetic to prepare and for the idea of a flower than how it looks on the plate, the banana flower is decidedly undelicate and unflowerlike, of a hearty rather than delicate nature. And, like banana the fruit, it contains plenty of potassium and other nutrients sought out by rational eaters that you can read about here.

Neverthless, some irrationality abounds in this episode. When I told the guys at the evangelical luncheonette across the street that I had gotten banana flowers at the market, they laughed at my silly gringa ways and said, "Around here, no one buys banana flowers. They grow everywhere!" Point taken.

Read more about banana flowers at what I've come to think of as my Brazilian sister site, Flavors of Brazil.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Indomitable Ninja Broccoli (Brócolis Ninja)

Victory, at last. For months now, ever since a hot tip came in on the wire from Paulistano WV agent Ervilho Frita ("Pea Fry," though I've happily butchered the Portuguese rules of masculino/feminina and reinvented "ervilha" as a macho pea-o), I've been stalking the (in)famous Ninja Broccoli, part of the stealth gang of green mercenaries known in these parts as Brócolis Ninja.

It may look like a normal head of broccoli, but this is no ordinary inflorescent, no. Its floret might look rotund and jolly like its average American counterpart but the ninja broccoli's cat-like swiftness and diabolical cunning are dead serious.

The ninja broccoli is a variant that cropped up mysteriously amidst fields of the previously more common (in Brazil) sprouting broccoli, or brócolis ramoso, which has more numerous branchings and thinner stalks. Another complication is that this chubby ninja known as "normal" broccoli in the U.S. is called "calabrese" in Britain (from Calabria in Italy), a name whose fancy foreign connotation U.S. farmers apply to the other, thinner, more exotic, usually heirloom, and sometimes royally purple-tinged sprouting type. An insane amount of broccoli lore can be had here.

As might be expected, the origins of the "ninja" identity of this broccoli in Brazil are somewhat obscure. In Rio, no one at the farmers' markets had even heard of "brócolis ninja." "Must be from São Paulo," many of the vendors mused about the Japanese-sounding name. São Paulo state has the largest population of Japanese descent in Brazil, a country that has has the largest population of Japanese descent outside of Japan. Most Japanese immigrants originally came as farmers, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. If you are surprised by this, read more here.

Sprouting broccoli is considered tastier but the "one-headed broccoli," or ninja broccoli (brócoli de cabeça única) is easier to harvest with one swoop of the blade, more weather resistant, and holds up well in the freezer section, so its popularity in the veggie marketplace has risen.

To return to our origin tale... this site (in Portuguese) claims that ninja broccoli began to sprout as a genetic accident, a hybrid among fields of "normal," or sprouting broccoli (recall that the U.S. "normal" broccoli is this genetic aberration). At first, farmers considered it an undesirable variant but could not get rid of this broccoli that kept appearing and spreading mysteriously. A Japanese scientist, who preferred to remain anonymous, compared these cunning broccoli to ninjas, and the name stuck, immediately snatched up by marketing professionals as a stroke of genius: Ninja broccoli, your kid's favorite vegetable. Sounds suspicious? Well, the site is called "Crazy Train" (Trem Doido), so factor that into whether you believe it or not. Maybe we are to believe this story to the extent that we believe that this guy is a deadly Broccoli Ninja:

left on my virtual doorstep by
Brazilian vegetable queen V. Berinjela

So far, I haven't been able to find any other explanation of why it's called "ninja broccoli," and for now we might come to the simple conclusion that it just sounds cool, ninjas being arguably one of the coolest figures to come out of Japanese history and lore (unless you're partial to samurais. It's kind of like that old Goddard or Truffaut debate). Anyone with more information, please comment. I will update if I find anything at the library (the Internet has exhausted me for the time being).

image source