May 11, 2013

A Taste of Home

The following article was published in Latin Patty-O. Click here to view the original version.

When I think about what it means to be Dominican, a most beautiful parade of bright colors, uniquely enticing sounds, delicious aromas and mouth-watering flavors immediately overflow my senses. Dominican people love the good life and in that, we’re not particularly different from other Latino cultures. Unlike the Swiss, we’re not that bothered about keeping track of time and we certainly don’t self-flagellate like the English when we have been naughty. We like to hang out, dance, make fun of each other, arrive late, drink rum, play dominos and overly exaggerate when we retell stories. Some wear their chancletas with socks and others without, but there are two things we all share in common no matter what the color of our skin, level of education or social status: the unquestionable belief that Juan Luis Guerra is one the greatest Dominican musicians of all time, a poet and national hero, and our unconditional love of plantains.

I have never met a Dominican person who does not love their plátanos. If you want to get one excited, as long as you have plenty of time on your hands, just ask in how many ways it is possible to eat a plantain. Their eyes will light up instantly. Watch them salivate as they begin to count the ways: asado, frito, sancochado, maduro, troceado, mangú, pastelón, tostones, chelitos, platanitos, mofongo, al caldero, rellenos, en el sancocho, majao al pilón, con mantequilla o aceite de oliva, bacalao, arenque, berenjenas guisadas, chicharrón, pica pollo, con un quesito frito, longaniza, huevos, salchicón, con el aguacatico y su escabeche por encima. The list goes on and on. You might even get a call couple of weeks later talking about how they’ve just remembered another way.

We literally eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even as a snack mid morning, afternoon or late night. I would not dare exaggerate. Ever heard the saying "Dominicans Don't Play"? To put it in perspective, plantains are to us what pasta is to Italians or potatoes are to the English. They are a major food staple in most Dominican households and a fundamental component of our national identity. So it is no surprise when a foreigner has been living in the country for a while, long enough to assimilate our ways, learn the slang and in rare cases, actually move their hips to the rhythm, they are said to be aplatanao, or plantain-like, meaning they have been “dominicanized”.

Plantains are believed to have originated in Southeast Asia and their history can be traced as far back as 500 B.C., by which time they were being cultivated in India. From there they found their way into Africa through Madagascar. It is said Alexander the Great was the first to introduce them into Europe around 327 B.C.

Nearly a couple thousand years later, plantains were introduced in the Caribbean and eventually the rest of the New World. I read somewhere that a Franciscan monk, who had come in contact with the fruit in the Canary Islands, brought it to Santo Domingo for the first time in 1516. I was mind blown. Considering that plantains are so inherent to our national culture, one would be inclined to think they have been on the island for thousands of years. In a similar way as one would think Italians have been eating tomato sauce since before Christ, when in actual fact, tomatoes are native to South America and were not introduced into Italy and the rest of Europe until sometime in the 16th century.

Apparently, plantains have a high nutritional content. Go figure. They are a good source of carbohydrate and dietary fiber, as well as Vitamin A, B6 and C, potassium, magnesium and phosphate. They contain very little sugar and fat when green, but as they ripen, the starch turns into sugar. All I know is that they are really tasty, although I can imagine for someone having them for the first time, it may well take some getting used to. It is a somewhat acquired taste. The flavor and texture are not easy to describe.

Plantains are in season all year round, so they are abundant, cheap, nutritious and filling, a winning combination in a developing country. I’d say they practically fall from trees in the Dominican Republic, but that would be incorrect because contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a plantain tree. The correct classification would be “herbaceous plant”, though this particular herb can reach up to 20 feet. It multiplies like bad weed. We're one of the world’s top producers of plantains. For such a tiny island, in comparison with other big producers, that’s pretty impressive, and probably a lot of plátanos per capita.

For those of us living abroad, eating plantains helps to remind us of who we are and where we come from. It’s comfort food, a taste of home. Although, no matter how much you think you have perfected your mangú-making technique, it always tastes infinitely better when your mother makes it for you. In that respect, I’m lucky to have mine living abroad with me.

They say eating too much plantain makes people dumb. Frankly, I don’t know if there is any truth to this statement, and in fact, I’m not even sure that’s at all possible, but if it were, it’d be a small price to pay. As long as we can have our plantains.

3 comments:

  1. Missed reading u baby.. I just loved it, I love the way you describe things, sensations, moments. Can't wait to eat some plátanos TONIGHT jajaj! Yes, we are proud dominicans! :) big hug

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've had a tab open with this post for way too long, I finally read it and I've enjoyed it very much. In fact, today I went to the Boqueria to buy fruits, and I saw plantains! I had to buy one...at that moment I craved some tostones ;-).
    And by the way, I am one of those that were their chancletas with socks :-P

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi, Nice post thanks for sharing. Would you please consider adding an intro to my website on your next post? I will return the favor. Please email me back. Thanks!

    Randy
    randydavis387 at gmail.com

    Gadgets

    ReplyDelete