Unravelling Street Food: Banana or Glûay
by Brian S.
Pic: Elena Mirage / Shutterstock.com
Thought to have originated on the Malaysian archipelago, the banana is believed to have first been domesticated in Papua New Guinea. From there, the banana tree floated, swam or otherwise made its way up to Southeast Asia proper. The banana is also one of the edible commodities that emigrated from Asia to the Muslim world, then to Africa, and from there over to the Western world, instead of the other way around. Botanists estimate that there are nearly 1,000 varieties of the fruit worldwide. These are further subdivided into 50 different sub-groups. Grown in three-quarters of the countries on this planet, more than 105 million metric tonnes of bananas are exported annually.
The fruit’s name is thought to be derived from the West African word, “banaana”, which was passed into the English language by Spanish and Portuguese traders. Today, the name “banana” typically refers to the long, soft, sweet, yellow, dessert-style banana, known as the Cavendish variety, that are found in most Western supermarkets. The elongated and slightly curved fruit that was once described as a “leathery berry”, and nicknamed the “Fruit of the Wise” varies in size, colour, shape and firmness. In actuality, the rind on a number of banana cultivars turns a variety of shades of yellow, orange, red, purple, brown and green when they reach their peak of ripeness and are ready to consume. The familiar vivid yellow hue that Westerners normally associate with a banana is, in fact, artificially induced as the ripening bananas are sealed in an ethylene gas-filled chamber. This process prolongs the shelf life of the banana and enhances the yellow colour, but it also alters the texture and minimises the flavour.
In the Land of Smiles, it is said that there are between 20 and 50 varieties of Glûay (the Thai word for a banana). Ranging from small and fragrant to sweet and large, three of the most common and popular varieties of Thai bananas are:
Glûay Hŏm or fragrant banana: This is a sweet-smelling, medium-sized banana, and the closest thing in Thailand to a Western-style Cavendish banana. It is popular with the Thais as an anytime snack.
Glûay Khài or egg banana: This is a miniature banana that is shorter and rounder, sort of like an egg. Thais consume this much sweeter banana fresh, dried and deep fried. It’s also the banana that frequently adorns the small Buddhist shrines that are found in so many Thai homes and businesses.
Glûay Lep Meu Naang or lady finger banana: At approximately 10 cm in length, this tiny and delicate banana has a golden yellow, thin and delicate skin.
Bananas can be found virtually everywhere in Thailand. They are an integral part of Thai society. One of the first solid foods that a Thai baby is likely to be fed is mashed bananas. In fact, Thai parents believe that feeding their baby glûay will make the infant grow up fast and strong. The Thais even include the word glûay in their colloquial expressions. For example, if you’re referring to something that is very simple to do, a Westerner would say it is a “piece of cake”, while a citizen of Thailand would say “kăwng glûay glûay” or simply “glûay glûay” to indicate that the task was easily accomplished. You’ve also probably noticed that, in addition to red Fanta, bananas placed on a tray comprise an important part of the traditional offerings that are made to Buddha on a daily basis.
In addition to the fruit, the bright red blossoms of the banana tree are also consumed in salads like Som Tam, deep fried and as an edible garnish that accompanies every dish of Phad Thai that I’ve ever seen. Banana leaves are often used in Thai cuisine as a wrapping in which to serve food and so that fish can be steamed or grilled over an open fire. Banana tree stalks are also used to fabricate Kratongs, as used during the Loi Kratong Festival that takes place annually in November.
The banana turns up in a tremendous number of Thai desserts and snacks that are sold by the ever-present street food carts. Some of which are: battered and deep fried bananas or glûay kheek; banana shakes; banana pancakes; dried banana chips; bananas in sticky rice, wrapped in banana leaf or khao tom mat sai glûay; banana, lychee and coconut dessert; banana coconut custard; bananas in syrup or glûay khai chuam; sweetened and squished grilled bananas or glûay tap; and bananas in coconut milk or glûay buat chee.
When green, the ordinary banana has a shelf-life of approximately seven to 10 days. If the banana is very green, it can be placed inside a brown paper bag along with an apple or a tomato and left overnight to speed up the ripening process. Because bananas suffer from the cold, they should never be stored inside the refrigerator. Thai bananas are best eaten just as the skin begins to turn dark.
Loaded with vitamin B6, dietary fiber, vitamin C, manganese and potassium, bananas are considered to be one the healthiest fruits. Healthwise, a high potassium intake is associated with a decreased risk of dying from all causes! Also, ingesting foods rich in potassium is associated with the reduced risk of stroke, preventing the loss of muscle mass, preserving bone density and reducing the possible formation of kidney stones. It’s also recently been discovered that, if a child eats one banana per day, the risk of developing asthmas is reduced by 34 per cent. The high fiber content of the banana helps to protect the body from diabetes. All of the vitamins and minerals contained in a banana support good heart health and reduces the risk of contracting a number of different types of cancer. An amino acid found in bananas plays a significant role in preserving memory and boosting one’s mood. Bananas are also recommended for anyone suffering from acute diarrhea as they replenish lost minerals and promote regularity.