When you think about eating a banana, what comes to mind? A sliced banana floating in cereal and milk? A strawberry- banana smoothie? A monkey jumping across trees on a vine in a jungle with a banana in hand? Well, if you eat a traditional Latin American diet, you likely see a banana in a whole different light.
There are several different varieties of banana-like foods, which are all part of the same family, but taste very different from each other. Plantains typically are cooked before eaten, and are starchier and lower in sugar than bananas. They are often utilized in a meal just as one would a starchy vegetable (potatoes, for example). Ripe plantains are blackish in color and, just like yellow and green bananas, taste different at every stage of the ripening process.
Green bananas — which can be thought of as in between yellow bananas and plantains — are also used in food preparation as starchy vegetables. When deciding if you want a yellow banana, a green banana and a plantain, remember this: they all taste different and have special uses.
A typical banana breakfast in the Dominican Republic would be a dish called mangu: boiled plantain mashed with butter and served with sauteed onions (oil and all), along with a side serving of fried cheese (deep fried queso de freir), fried salami and a fried egg. Some would call this a cholesterol and saturated fat nightmare. I would compare this to the calorie and fat content of a breakfast meal one might find at a fast food restaurant, with a banana on the side.
In Puerto Rican cuisine, boiled green bananas are often served with a stew made from bacalao (salted codfish), oil, onion, peppers, garlic, sofrito (a delicious blend of peppers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, cilantro and parsley that is often prepared ahead of time in batches and refrigerated for later use) and water. The problem with bacalao is that, because it is preserved in salt, it is very high in sodium. For healthier suggestions, start with a fresh flaky white fish (tilapia or haddock) instead of the bacalao.
As most dietitians know, it is very difficult to convince clients to give up their favorite traditional meals. “Skip the butter,” “eliminate the cheese,” “use low sodium turkey bacon” are pieces of advice that almost always fall on deaf ears. Instead, I like to suggest that clients enjoy their favorite meals on a limited basis. At the same time, they can balance their nutrient intake from other meals in order to make their favorite meal fit healthily into their meal plan. Then, one by one, try other healthy breakfasts of choice, until they can find something lower in fat and calories to enjoy on a more regular basis.
Thanks to my wonderful Latino clients, I have amassed a trove of information on the delectable flavors of the Caribbean and Latin American cultures. These foods can be found in almost any bodega, market or grocery store on almost any block throughout the Bronx — and maybe in your neighborhood too.