It is very hard to determine the exact origins of plantain or exactly how the fruit made its way to the African continent. (Yes, plantain is a fruit, just like tomatoes – human tendency to consume fruits like vegetables might be a topic for another article, but let’s stay on track for now.) In their publication Plantain in the Early Bantu World, De Langhe, Swennen, and Vuylsteke explore the different theories on how plantains became a staple crop in many Bantu cultures.
For a while, dominant theories were that plantains were either introduced into Ethiopia by Indian merchants and were then dispersed across the continent or that they were introduced to East Africa by Arab people and West Africa by the Portuguese.
Later, theories moved to the idea that the Malaysian-Indonesian people brought the fruit, by way of Madagascar, but this doesn’t explain why it appears that the Bantu people utilized plantains before their contact with Malagasy people.
The current consensus is that plantains are true of Southeast Asian origins, but made their way into the African diet through various channels.
Plantain has since not only become widespread in Africa with plantain trees being one of the most common trees found even in Ghana’s capital city Accra, but its presence has a huge impact on the diets of West Africans in tropical climates.
This is partly due to how versatile plantain is. Plantain trees don’t make great shade trees and don’t produce any real wood (the false trunk is made from the leaf shafts layering over each other), their leaves are incredibly useful and utilized in many cultures.
The leaves are large and waxy, making them waterproof and the ideal biodegradable, disposable plate. Plantain leaves are also used to wrap fish for steaming and even as bandages over limbs to cover and protect any topical creams and remedies administered to the area.
Plantain’s superstar will always be the fruit though. We know bananas to be versatile, but plantains go a step further by being more suitable for savory dishes, while still being relatively sweet compared to other fruit that we use as vegetables. Humans also benefit from the fact that plantains can be used in various stages of ripeness. Here are a few traditional and some more modern takes on how to utilize plantain.