Monday, February 7, 2011

FRUITS OF BRAZIL - Banana varieties

Among the countless thousands of comestible fruits in Brazil, pride of place belongs to the banana, even though it only came to Brazil after the arrival of the Portuguese. It is the most commonly eaten fruit in the country, and Brazil's production is second in the world, trailing only India's.

Even though the fruit is not native to Brazil, it flourishes, and can be grown successfully almost everywhere in the country. The bulk of the commercial crop of bananas in Brazil comes from the northeast region, followed by the north.

In North American and Europeans markets and shops, there is normally no choice in the variety of banana offered for sale - the shop either has bananas available or doesn't (Anybody remember "Yes, we have no bananas"?) Because of transport distance and time, consumers are restricted to buying varieties that can be picked green, have sturdy skins that can withstand handling, and ripen slowly. In Brazil, these same considerations don't apply, as the bananas for sale in a supermarket might have come from only 30 or 50 km. away, and could have been picked yesterday.

North American and European bananas are likely to be some hybrid of a banana family called called Cavendish. Originally from Vietnam or China, Cavendish bananas are suited to market conditions in non-tropical countries and have become the most commonly sold bananas in the world market.

In Brazil, the choice of bananas in markets is much larger, and most supermarkets, for example, have at least three or four varieties for sale at all times - much as American or Canadian supermarkets carry four or five types of apples. Each has different characteristics and uses, and the nutritional profile can differ greatly. Recently the Brazilian Department of Agriculture identified the six most common banana varieties in Brazil and published a taste and nutritional comparison of them. Here is a capsule of the Department's research and analysis.

Banana-da-terra (known in English as plaintain) - Description: up to 1 foot (30 cm) in length. Usually exhibits a flattened shape. Has less sugar than most bananas and more starch. Not eaten raw, but cooked when green (starchy taste) or when ripe (sweet taste). Nutritional characteristics: the most highly caloric banana, due to presence of starchy carbohydrates. Up to 60% higher calories than some other varieties of banana.

Banana-maçã (Apple banana) - Description: up to 6 inches (15 cm) in length. Sweet and with flavor reminiscent of apples. Skin is dark yellow and when ripe, the skin can turn completely black. Nutritional characteristics: the banana variety that is richest in manganese, important in the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates.

Banana-nanica (dwarf banana) - Description: "dwarf" appelation refers to the plant that produces the fruit, not the fruit itself. The fruit is large, very sweet and highly aromatic. Nutritional characteristics: richest in potassium of all banana varieties.

Banana prata (silver banana) - Description: up to 10 inches (25 cm) in length. Not as sweet as most other eating bananas. Can be fried as well as eaten raw. The most commonly eaten variety in Brazil. Nutritional characteristics: Like the banana-maçã, an important source of manganese.

Banana ouro (gold banana) - Description: the smallest of all commercial varieties, up to 4 inches (10 cm) in length. Very sweet in taste. Nutritional characteristics: very high carbohyrate content, highly caloric.

 Banana pacova (pacova banana) - Description: the largest of all varieties, ranging up to 18 inches (50 cm) in length. Grown in the Amazonian north of Brazil and strongly identified with that region's cuisine. Nutritional characteristics: richest in magnesium, which plays a role in reducing blood pressure.

Personally, I've eaten all these varieties with the exception of banana pacova, for which it seems that I'll have to travel to the Amazon to sample. My fruit basket is seldom without one or two different varieties - almost always banana prata, which is the most common in my region and usually the cheapest (normally selling for about USD $0.20 - $0.25 a pound). I also try to have one of the two sweet varieties - both of which make a great dessert eaten as-is, or sliced and topped with good quality yogurt. They are sweet enough that the yogurt can be unsweetened.


  1. Funny you should ask! Now that I've published this post about banana varieties, I plan to add some traditional Brazilian banana recipes in the next few days. Keep watching Flavors of Brazil for these recipes.

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