A few weeks into 2022, and it’s already evident we know nothing. What are parklets anymore? When will our favorite restaurants reopen? But, as annoying as uncertainty is, it has also — hopefully — made our minds and taste buds receptive to newer, wilder possibilities. Like savory banana dishes.
That’s right — stylishly expanding beyond desserts, pastries, and the occasional fried banana dessert hotdog, the fruit pantry staple has been, in recent months, making bold appearances in savory appetizers, main dishes, even condiments in the Bay Area, in ways no one could ever predict. And while plantains, its heartier, starchier cousin, need no introduction, sampling the smoothie superstar in dishes that aren’t sweet still feels new, even thrilling.
It all may have started with the Californios Instagram hit of banana and caviar. The perfect little plate consisting of a tiny grilled banana, savory caramel, and caviar became the talk of the town when chef Val Cantu’s new incarnation of the restaurant launched its tasting menu in March 2021. Then, a perfect bite of banana and caviar dorayaki — a homage to the traditional Japanese red bean pancake — appeared on the menu of the recently opened Restaurant Nisei.
At Abaca, the splashy, new Filipino restaurant at the Kimpton Alton Hotel in San Francisco, bananas can be spotted on a number of occasions, from banana barbecue sauce adorning thin slices of pork to a salad of banana hearts. And at Mago in Oakland, the latest addition to the menu is a dish of Tokyo turnips, Dungeness crab, banana, and basil seeds — it’s as elegant and unusual as it sounds.
To what do we owe this abundance? For Mago’s chef Mark Liberman, the idea came during crab season. “We wanted to do something with crab on the menu and brown butter and crab go well together,” he says. “I’ve used bananas before, and I like to find ways to utilize the texture and flavor. When we cook or dry out bananas for savory dishes, the banana takes on a brown butter flavor.” In the past, Liberman made different variations of pork dishes with roasted bananas and caramelized bananas, roasted the whole banana under coals, and even fermented it.
As much as the notion of a savory banana dish is refreshing and just a little strange, it’s not all that novel. Swedish kids who grew up in the ’80s can tell you all about Flying Jacob, an insanely popular chicken-and-banana casserole that first emerged as a magazine recipe in 1976 and inspired thousands of home cooks to be adventurous. In the Bay, the legendary establishment Scolari’s in Alameda has had a niche-yet-beloved banana-adorned pizza on the menu in the past. In the cuisines of Ghana and Tanzania, green-ish bananas are often utilized in stews and curries in lieu of plantains, and in the Philippines, banana ketchup is a mainstay — in the Bay Area, which had seen a steady surge of Filipino eateries in recent years, it can be spotted, made in-house, at the relatively new Understory in Oakland, served alongside pork lumpia.
“These ingredients are part of our culture and heritage,” says Abaca chef Francis Ang, who previously ran the successful pop-up Pinoy Heritage, when referring to the banana condiments at his restaurant. When the time came to plan the Abaca menu, Ang didn’t hesitate to include them. “Every time someone who grew up or traveled to the Philippines has a pork skewer glazed with this sweet and tangy banana barbecue sauce, it immediately hits nostalgia,” he says. “If you know you know and if you don’t? Well, it’s damn delicious.”
For the Michelin-starred Californios chef Val Cantu, the idea of grilling a banana and making it savory-sweet was appealing even back in the days of the old location. At the old Californios, there was a banana-filled tamal topped with caviar “well before the whole banana craze started.” When he first put the banana and caviar dish on the menu, he wasn’t sure how customers would react — “it’s a bit of an unusual combination, and very in-your-face presentation,” Cantu says, but, according to Cantu, 99 percent of diners love it. He’s currently considering further experimentation. “Californian cuisine is about food that makes you feel good, and bananas certainly do that,” he says. “Most people love them and can connect with them — sometimes with fine dining we enjoy connecting to familiar ingredients in a way that’s totally different.”
That sounds delightful, isn’t it? And also, pretty timely. Perhaps the savory banana movement is simply a metaphor for the way we deal with things now — taking what we got and what we know and making it exciting. “I think bananas are super accessible, affordable, and something you can find everyday in your grocery store,” Liberman says. “It’s an ingredient people can play around with in terms of different preparations and evoke new flavors in dishes. A little unsuspecting and delicious!” Surely, a combination this somehow already rocky year could use.