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Name that plant - for the answer scroll to the end
(8th
October 2001)

This plant is an herb, originating primarily in Malaysia and the neighboring archipelago about four thousand years ago. Its diversity developed over a very wide are from India to the Philippines and New Guinea. About two thousand years ago travelers carried it eastward through the Pacific and westward across the Indian Ocean to tropical Africa.

It is frequently referred to in ancient Hindu, Chinese, Greek, and Roman literature. Mention of it is found in various sacred texts of Oriental cultures. Chief of these writings are two Hindu epics, the Mahabharata, the work of an unknown author, and the Ramayana of the poet Valmiki. There are also references to it in certain sacred Buddhist texts. These chronicles describe a beverage derived from it which Buddhist monks were allowed to drink. Yang Fu, a Chinese official in the second century A.D., wrote an Encyclopedia of Rare Things, in which he described this plant.

The Greek naturalist philosopher Theophrastus wrote a book on plants in the 4th century B.C. in which he described this plant. His book is considered the first scientific botanical work extant. Alexander the Great saw it growing in the Indus Valley (327 B.C.) three hundred years before Christ. Pliny the Elder described it in A.D. 77. Seven hundred years later, Arabs introduced it to Egypt, whence it moved west across the continent. Portuguese explorers discovered it on Africa's Atlantic coast in the fifteenth century. Prince Henry the Navigator ordered specimens transplanted on the Portuguese island of Madeira where they flourish to this day. According to Spanish history, in 1516 Friar Tomas de Berlanga brought the first specimens and planted them in the rich fertile soil of the Caribbean.

Still rare in the Renaissance it was introduced to France by the Portuguese, and became common from the 18th century onwards. It first reached Britain from Bermuda in 1633, and was sold in the shop of the herbalist Thomas Johnson, but its name had been known to the British for forty years before that. Its present common name is apparently a word from one of the languages of the Congo area.

Today it is grown even in Iceland, and there are several hundred varieties of this plant grown commercially. Annual world production is about evenly divided between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. There seems to be some disagreement as to which is the world's largest producer, either Brazil or Uganda. India follows, growing somewhat less than half of Brazil's crop. The Philippines, Ecuador, Colombia, Honduras, Tanzania, Rwanda, Indonesia, Thailand, Cote d'Ivoire and Vietnam are also important producers.

The ideal temperature range is from about 50º to 105ºF (10º to 41ºC). It also requires about 80 to 200 inches (200 to 500 centimeters) of rain a year. The plant prefers an acid soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, and is not tolerant of salty soils. The best possible location would be above an abandoned compost heap.

In some countries its sprouts are covered with a pot and allowed to grow without sunlight until they mature into thick, long, white spikes that resemble huge white asparagus. It's sap causes an extremely serious stain that defies efforts for its removal, both to hands and to clothes!

Chef James EhlerThis article is from Chef James Ehler of Key West, Florida.

James is a webmaster, cook, chef, writer and (like me) a self-confessed computer nerd. He is the former executive chef of Martha's Steak & Seafood Restaurant and the former Reach Hotel (both in Key West), the Hilton Hotel in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the New Bern Golf and Country Club, North Carolina.

He is now webmaster and cook at the Blue Heaven Restaurant in Key West while he works on his Food Encyclopedia (five years so far). It is well worth paying a visit to James' food reference website which is a useful resource well worth Bookmarking - to visit either website just click on their title:

The Food Reference Website
The Blue Heaven Restaurant, Key West, Florida

If you want to contact James just email him by clicking here.

The answer : The Banana plant

Additional facts:
Soil heated by geysers are making it possible to grow bananas in Iceland! Sometimes the layperson includes as trees, plants that botanists cannot accept as such - e.g. the banana. Such confusion arises from the fact that what appears to be the trunk of the 'banana tree' is actually leafstalks rolled tightly around each other. The banana plant is entirely herbaceous, has no true trunk, and thus is not considered a tree by botanists.

© James T. Ehler, 2001
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