I may as well get this off my chest at the outset. They’re not bananas but plantains. But “Kerala Banana” has a rhythm, a euphony, that plantain doesn’t, so I’ve taken a minor literary license. Fried plantain is the archetypical Kerala snack. It’s way too oily and sickly sweet for my taste, so I keep it at arm’s length — but I’ve sampled it on a few occasions and have to admit that it has its charm. There must be dozens of banana-based snacks on the menu in Kerala. Kerala bananas are famous all over India, especially the banana chips. It’s one snack most visitors to Kerala take back with them. Banana chips are neatly packaged and dry, unlike the oily fried bananas in the photo above, and so can be easily carried around.
These are Kerala plantains in their natural state.
The snack my father loves is steamed plantains. These have a distinctive sweet taste and are an excellent accompaniment with puttu (see photo below), a rice flour and coconut breakfast dish.
Pootu and kadala (chick peas) is a classic Kerala breakfast. I’ve found that alternating the kadala with steamed plantain as accompaniments to puttu in the same meal works very well because of the sweet and sour contrast.
So where is the Kerala banana story? Here it is. This is actually a story originally included in Ithihyamala, “an eight-volume compilation of Kerala legends written in Malayalam by Kottarathil Sankunni in the early decades of the last century, between 1909 and 1934.” The quote is from the book Tales Once Told: Legends of Kerala by Abraham Eraly. Fittingly enough, the tallest tale of them, entitled “The Liar Takes All,” is the last tale in the book. Yes, it’s a Kerala banana story.
The setting is the court of the Cochin Maharaja, Raja Rama Varma, who ruled in the mid-19th century. The king was a connoisseur and patron of literature and the arts, and also had plenty of time to pursue his interests as the administration of his kingdom was in the hands of the British. His court thus became renowned for literary lectures, debates, and readings. One day, to liven up the proceedings, the king announced three competitions for his courtiers. Contestants were to (1) tell a blatant lie and convince the audience as to its truth, (2) convince the audience that nobody else had eaten a tastier meal than he that day, and (3) get the audience to agree that he was the luckiest man among them. The winner in each category would get cash prizes. The competition would begin the following day at 11 am and end at 5 pm.
The king arrived punctually at 11 am, and his courtiers were already assembled there — with the exception of Kallur Namboodiri, who was the most prominent writer and scholar in the kingdom of Cochin. This was a surprise, for the man was a stickler for punctuality. I will now let Abraham Eraly continue the story, for he has done a magnificent job of translating these stories from Malalayalam. In the introduction, Eraly says the stories were too rambling for a direct translation; instead, he retold them, restructuring them as he saw fit.
As they were wondering what could have happened to him, he arrived with a downcast face.
“Any problem?,” the raja [king] asked solicitously.
“Well …,” the Namboodiri demurred.
“It’s a long story, said the Namboodiri. “If I go into it, the proceedings here would be delayed.”
“That doesn’t matter,” said the raja. “We are eager to hear what happened to you.”
“If you insist,” said the Namboodiri in a low, dejected tone. “Sometime back a relative had given me a Nendra-vazha (large banana) sapling. As you know, I love plantains, and as I had only just this one tree, I planted it in the inner courtyard of the house, and we took such good care of it that it grew stout and tall like a palm tree, and its leaves spread over the whole courtyard. And it bore a huge fruit bunch, with twelve clumps of bananas. In about three months, when it began to ripen, I tied a cloth around the bunch to prevent squirrels from getting at it. Today when I checked it, I found that it had ripened nicely. So I carefully cut down the bunch from the tree and took it into the kitchen. Would you believe it, there were one hundred and twenty-five bananas in the bunch!
And thus Kallur Namboodiri described how when his wife saw the luscious bananas, she said she would make a pradhaman [a kind of pudding] with it, and how after it was made, he overate because it was the most delicious pradhanam he had ever tasted in his life, and he started feeling a little uncomfortable in the stomach and had to lie down to recover, and only remembered about the meeting later. He concluded by apologizing for holding up the meeting.
The king, in an aggrieved tone, asked Kallar why he had not sent any of the pradhanam to the palace. If something special was made in his house, the king invariably was sent a portion. At this, Kallar Namboodiri averted his eyes in embarrassment. One of the courtiers now said if he had known about the pradhanam, he would have gone to Kallar’s house for his meal. This sentiment was echoed by the others in the assembly in a chorus. This is how Eraly finishes the story:
… the Namboodiri went over to where the raja was sitting and took one purse.
“Why are you taking it?” asked the raja.
“You have offered one purse to the person who tells a lie and makes others believe that it is true,” said the Namboodiri. “What I said about the plantain is an absolute lie. And you all took it to be true. So this purse is mine.”
No one could raise any objection to that. So the Namboodiri took the second purse. And again the raja asked why he took it.
“This purse is for the person who convinces all that he had the tastiest meal today,” said the Namboodiri. “Since all of you wanted to come to my house to eat pradhanam, this purse is mine.”
Again, no one could object to it. Then the Namboodiri took the third purse also. And when questioned about it, he said, “This purse is for the luckiest man among us. Of all the people here, I’ve merited two purses. What other proof do you need that I’m the luckiest of all?”
And with that the meeting ended, and the Namboodiri went laughing all the way home, carrying the three purses.
This story has all the earthiness of the best folk tales, though to enjoy them to the hilt, I suppose they should be read in the vernacular. At any rate, I hope I’ve convinced you that the banana is deeply rooted in the Malayali psyche.
Eraly states in his introduction that the stories in the book are “not folk tales but historical anecdotes of a legendary character.” I’m not sure I fully understand that, but let me leave you with a historical tidbit — Rama Varma Club, which is still going strong today, was founded by the same king, Rama Varma.