Lunch is sensual at the new Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill outlet in Long Beach, California.
There is, of course, the usual array of eye-popping colors and nose-widening aromas emanating from such traditional Jamaican favorites as jerk beef, curried goat, and brown stew chicken. Some customers love ordering the braised ox tail combo. And many palates are stirred by the sliced or whole fish meals.
There is one dish, however, that’s on almost every plate. It consists of several sliced oblong pieces fried to a golden crisp exterior with a gooey yellow sweetness inside. The taste is familiar enough to be comforting, yet strange enough to entice; a sort of mother’s milk for the millions who grew up with it, and a slightly exotic almost-dessert to those for whom it’s new.
We’re speaking, of course, of plantains, cousins of bananas that are appearing increasingly across America as quick-service side dishes and desserts.
“They’re good to eat,” says Golden Krust customer Virginia Jones. Jones grew up eating plantains in Panama. For her finding the fruit readily available on the Golden Krust menu is a treat. “You have to have plantains with your meal, it’s a must! I don’t want the meal if it doesn’t have plantains,” she says.
Native to India, plantains—sometimes also called “potatoes of the air” or “cooking bananas”—grow most widely in tropical climates protected from strong winds, conditions common throughout most of Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean, as well the Philippines and, marginally, even Florida.
Longer and thicker-skinned than bananas, plantains are starchier and usually appear green, though they sometimes blacken when ripe. Unlike their more common and smaller yellow cousins, these vegetable-like fruits must be cooked before they can be consumed. Known as the pasta and potatoes of the Caribbean, they are also popular throughout much of Africa, where they are served boiled, steamed, baked, fried, or, in many cities, grilled over charcoal fires in the streets.
“It’s a staple,” Maria Krogh says of the food she grew up with in her native Honduras. “It’s something that, in many countries, is eaten with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Today Krogh, 38, is vice president of marketing for MIC Foods, a Miami-based company that imports and distributes more than a million pounds of plantains each month to restaurants and retail grocery stores nationwide. About half the company’s customers, she says, are quick-service restaurants, which, with a 200 percent growth over the last five years, comprise the fastest-growing segment of the market. “We expect to see sales double in the next five years,” Krogh says.
It wasn’t always so. Back in 1988 when Krogh’s father, Alfredo Lardizabal, began selling plantain samples from his Miami kitchen, most of his buyers were Latin American. In the intervening years, Krogh says, several things have changed, including a growing Hispanic immigrant population and the acceptance of Hispanic foods into mainstream American cuisine. Krogh is now importing 30 times the amount of plantains her father did.
“The business is increasing because it’s so easy,” she says. “The food is already made. When I go to food shows for sales presentations, I’m the last one to get there and the first to be ready to show.”
Processing plantains is a simple endeavor, she says. Grown by a network of suppliers in Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, MIC plantains, sold under the brand name of Big Banana, are processed on site before being shipped frozen to warehouses in Florida, California, and New Jersey. “Our biggest secret,” Krogh says, “is how to ripen hundreds of thousands of them all at the same time.”