Hello again! Here’s the third installment of my blog project on tracing the African influence on Dominican cooking. If you haven’t checked out my first or second posts, click the hyperlinked text! Otherwise, let’s get to it. This post will, as mentioned in the title, talk solely about the use of plantains in the Dominican and West African diet, highlighting similarities. If you don’t know what plantains are, stay calm – I’m about to break it down.
First of all, plantains aren’t just supersized bananas. That is a huge misconception and probably the root of a lot of confusion. Basically, “plantains are a member of the banana family. They are a starchy, low in sugar variety that is cooked before serving, as it is unsuitable raw.” This chart might make it easier to understand the differences:
In the Dominican Republic, plantains were introduced around the 1500s. They quickly grew in popularity because “when cooked, they have a heavy, filling, potato-like character to them,” and are therefore an inexpensive yet satisfying addition to any meal.
If you’re out shopping for plantains, you may encounter them at three different stages of maturation.
Not all plantains are the same – you cannot substitute a green plantain for a recipe that calls for a ripe one. Food writer Miki Kawasaki notes: “When using them in savory recipes, you want to seek out hardy, firm green plantains, which are generally larger than your average banana. Ripe yellow and black plantains, although still on the starchy and tough side, do have a noticeable sweetness to them and caramelize nicely when cooked.”
Plantains are just as much of a staple in West African cuisine as they are in the DR. Traders brought the fruit back to Africa from Asia in the 6th century. As in the Dominican, West African recipes often call for ripe green plantains to be boiled and then smashed and fried or served as a starch in soups. Fufu is a classic example, involving “a process of pounding, boiling, and stirring a starchy staple until it is a very thick, sticky mass — much thicker than mashed potatoes.” The product is then used “to scoop up stews and other dishes. Or place large balls in individual serving bowls and spoon the stew around them” like dumplings. Kelewele from Ghana is another popular plantain dish, using riper versions of the fruit; it is “flavorful fried plantain cubes. […] sprinkled with spices, and fried in hot oil.” Nigerian Moi-Moi is traditionally made with black-eyed peas, but using plantains has now become a typical substitution. It’s a type of savory pudding, cooked while wrapped in banana leaves.
The most typical plantain plates in the Dominincan are mangu, mofongo, tostones and maduros. The first three are made with green, unripened plantains, and therefore are considered savory dishes. Maduros are sliced ripened plantains that are fried, producing some caramelization, and sometimes sprinkled with cinnamon or sugar (like Kelewele). I had them as a starchy side to my fried eggs one night. I wasn’t sure I was going to like the combination, but it turned out to be one of my favorite dishes!
My experience with Mofongo in the Dominican was that it’s boiled green plantains, mashed, mixed with chicharrón, and then formed into a ball that is fried. It usually comes with a thin garlic sauce to put on top. Here’s a picture of what a typical Mofongo (on the left) looks like.
Mangu is also boiled and mashed plantains, and looks more like a really thick batch of mashed potatoes. Traditionally, it’s served topped with fried pickled onions and can accompany fried eggs or salami for breakfast, lunch or dinner!
Tostones, my personal favorite, are twice-fried green plantain slices. Unlike Mangu and Mofongo, the slices are not boiled beforehand. They are placed in hot oil until golden, removed, smashed into discs and put back in the hot oil to fry again. This video from Pica Pica Maize Kitchen has a great step-by-step tutorial for making tostones. Just as the United States is divided on whether eggs taste better with or without ketchup, Dominicans are divided on whether tostones require a side of ketchup.
Well, there is your basic guide to plantains, both in Western Africa and the Dominican Republic. Plantains are delicious, filling sources of nutrition, which is why they are such a staple in many cultures’ cuisines. They fall under the category of viveres, or starchy roots, tubers, and grains (though they are neither). I’ll explore viveres more in depth in my next entry. Until then, go get some tostones and see whether you’re on the ketchup or no-ketchup team!