It’s that time of year when our corner of Congo turns lush and green. The rains have finally arrived. During the dry season we water our lawn and garden by hand, but we are no contest for these rains. Out in the bush, grasses and shrubs are busy devouring our favorite trails. We figure we might not get our mountain bike fix again until next April or May, after the rains stop and the purposely-set bush fires clear the trails again. Darn it. I was just starting to like biking.
The rains also bring a boon in insects and other living things. Every morning we find expired termite wings piled up under the porch lights. In the afternoons lately, a swarm of almost biblical proportions of some winged insect passes through. I haven’t yet dared to step outside to try to identify them, but the word “plague” often comes to mind when I see them through the windows. And in the evenings, the chorus of frogs from the nearby watering holes is so loud, it’s comical. I love hearing them. I also love catching frogs, like I’m still a little girl in pigtails. I love the way their cool skin feels in my hand, the way they jump straight into my hand if I hold it just so, the way they breathe with their whole belly and look at me with their big eyes, and the way they hop along as if nothing happened after I set them down again. I’ve heard that getting warts from frogs is a myth; I sure prefer to believe that’s true.
The mango trees are laden with fruit this time of year. We figure next week they’ll be big enough to start harvesting green. Just a few. If we let them ripen on the trees, they have a way of disappearing before our very eyes. One mango tree is safely inside our yard, away from prying eyes and hands, but it’s a different variety than the others and seems to be struggling this season. While we were in Canada in August (where Seb had a geology conference and we took full advantage of the opportunity), neighbors told us a rogue rain came through. Highly unusual. The mango trees had been in flower when we left, and the rain caused them to drop their flowers early. Our private tree has exactly eight fruits coming along, whereas last year it had dozens.
Our papaya tree, on the other hand, has been wildly successful. This tree is only fifteen months old, and it’s already going gangbusters.
Awesome story about this tree. We started it shortly after we moved into this house last year, straight from seed. But not just any papaya seed. These were the first-generation offspring of seeds that a very dear friend of ours sent us long ago from her home in Washington, DC. And it’s not like she could just pop them in the mail! No, they were hand-carried to us, with a note describing how she’d taken the seeds from a particularly delicious specimen and had thought of us because of a Thai green papaya salad I’d once made for her.
Lauren, I have to tell you — these seeds have become legendary. Seb planted them right away at his core sheds, where he had both the space and the vision for creating a fruit orchard. The guys who worked there could not believe how quickly they grew, and how incredible the papayas turned out. They began asking for more seeds, and taking them home. Since then there have been several more rounds of seed harvesting, drying, and planting at various employees’ homes, and now this little papaya from Maryland and its progeny is feeding all kinds of folks in Fungurume — and probably Lubumbashi and Likasi, too.
Seb was surprised, too, and made sure to stake a claim on that very first papaya harvest at the core shed. We didn’t have good papaya-growing space at our house at base camp at the time, but he kept those seeds around anyway. And now we have these beautiful results. Everyone who sees our tree, from expats to passing gardeners, puts in their request for the next round of seeds.
We need ripe fruit in order to harvest more seeds, and that day will come soon enough, but in the meantime we’ve been enjoying recipes that use papayas green and unripe. There’s the always delicious Som Tam, of course, which I wrote about after our trip to Thailand and appears to have exploded on the internet lately with all kinds of new versions to try, but we’ve got a new favorite these days: This perfect South Indian stir-fry. Seb said he wants this for dinner every night. And the way this tree is producing, he might get his wish!
It’s been an exciting months of “firsts” in our little backyard garden. Along with our first green papaya harvest, we also had our first banana harvest! Hard to believe it took us seven years in Congo to get our hands on our very own bananas, when they grow literally all over the place, but it’s true. Our old house in base camp, though we loved it, didn’t have much going for it in terms of tree space. And community trees — well, we never felt truly comfortable staking a claim to those. (Plus we knew we would never win.) So for our banana fix, we would rely on the generosity of neighbors who had a large private harvest to share, or we would buy them in town. Fun fact — bananas at the market used to cost 50 francs each. A nickel!
And these are the best bananas on earth. Really. These are small, sweet, perfect little bananas. Whenever we go home or someplace where bananas are imported, they just don’t seem as appealing. (Unless you’re Congolese, apparently. One of Seb’s senior geologists and legends, Papa Nzita, who retired recently at the age of 75, told me that when he traveled to Belgium or the U.S., he personally found those long, starchy, gross imported bananas better. So, there you go. The grass is always greener? Or, to each his own.)
When we moved camps a little over a year ago, there was a pathetic straggler of a banana tree in our new backyard barely clinging to life. With regular waterings, though, it quickly sprang into action. It’s still pretty tiny, but getting healthier. A few months ago it rewarded us with a little flower, a great sign. I documented its growth, along with the rest of the garden:
We’re amateur banana growers, for sure, but if we’ve done our research correctly, this large gap between flower and last rung of the bunch means that it’s time to cut off the flower. It helps the tree to focus its energy on plumping up the fruit itself. And, bonus — the flower itself is edible! Not that anybody here in Congo knows that. Which kills me. There’s free food growing all around us, yet no one’s eating it. It’s the same story with green mangos and papayas and plantains. In Congo (at least according to the Congolese I’ve known), those aren’t considered food until they ripen. So for weeks or months, you see trees absolutely loaded with green fruit, and then the moment they ripen, if you look away for a second you’ll miss them. Poof — they’re gone.
Which means to have a fair chance in this race, I’ve had to do my research on green fruit and flowers and things that aren’t in high competition. Recipes for these unusual kinds of ingredients abound in Southeast Asia and India, where typically no part of the plant (or animal for that matter) is wasted. I’ve made versions of Banana Flower Salad a few times before, using flowers from neighbors’ gardens (with permission, of course), and have always enjoyed it. But this time, with my very own first flower, I made it part of a Vietnamese dinner for a small group of young men — the kind of young men who aren’t really the “vegetable” type, if you know what I mean — and even they liked it. As in, they finished their plates and commented, mostly unprompted, that whatever that strange new flavor was, it was pretty good. To me, that’s a success story right there.
It took awhile, but a few months after harvesting the flower, the bananas started looking plump enough to take down. Again we’re still amateurs here, but we’ve heard that if we leave bananas too long on the tree, they’ll start bursting out of their skins. Better to cut them down (watch out for the clear sap, though, that will leave permanent black spots on everything it touches!!) and hang them somewhere, ideally inside a garbage bag which will trap the gasses needed to help them ripen.
This was a particularly small bunch of bananas (we assume it’s because our tree is still quite small); usually a single harvest will yield four or five times as much. Even after sharing with neighbors, that can be a lot of bananas to have on your hands! There’s only so many you can enjoy as a snack, or sliced on your cereal, right? Besides freezing them for future smoothies or baking banana bread, I’ve become a big fan of savory applications. One of my favorite cookbook writers Reza Mahammad (I’ve mentioned his book Indian Spice before) has an awesome recipe for banana and onion curry with baked eggs. Sounds bizarre, but we love it. (Sorry, I don’t think I should post the recipe here, for copyright reasons. But here’s a public-domain recipe for a banana curry pizza we also love!)
Reza also has an incredible recipe for green mangos with lamb. Tender, sweet & sour, delicious. I love his book! I know these are pretty unusual ingredients back home, but I’ve had some luck finding them at Asian markets. Once when I was staying in Orlando and in charge of cooking for Mom and Rudy, I found green papayas and mangos and jackfruit AND a banana blossom at one of those places. The banana salad went down okay — this was before perfecting the recipe — but I spared my poor stepdad the rest. Then again, he did like the water spinach I found there, a lot. Next time, I swear, I’m going to get him to like tofu.
One last thing. Let me say a quick “happy birthday” weekend to my incredible grandmother. Grandma, I wish I could be there cooking something with or for you right now!
Jen’s Banana Flower Salad, adapted mostly from here, but mine is vegetarian
- 1 banana flower
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 1 Tbsp sugar, ideally palm sugar
- 1 Tbsp fish sauce (nuoc mam)
- 2 Tbsp lime juice
- 1 finely chopped red chile
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- a little grated fresh ginger root
- 2 oranges, segmented & chopped (after removing pith & skin)
- 1 red or yellow bell pepper, chopped same size as oranges
- handfuls of mung bean sprouts & herbs (fresh mint, fresh basil, fresh cilantro), coarsely chopped
- try adding grated green papaya or green mango
- ¼ cup chopped toasted peanuts, for garnish
- 2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds, garnish
Prepare banana flower:
– fill a large bowl with cold water and squeeze in the lemon juice
– wear latex gloves! your fingernails will thank you
– slice off the bottom stem part of the flower and discard the tough outer 2-3 leaves, revealing pale pink leaves (save the outer leaves to use as serving boats!)
– pull leaves off one at a time, keeping them as whole as possible, and immediately plunge each whole leaf into the water bowl to keep the edges from oxidizing (turning an innocuous yet unappetizing sooty color)
– as you peel, discard the undeveloped baby bananas in between each leaf
– it helps to continue slicing off the bottom stem as you go, pulling the leaves up from the bottom (may need to slice off the very top too, where the leaves are wrapped super tightly)
– when the leaves become too small to peel, just chop off whatever remains of the stem, and slice or dice the smaller leaves and small heart at the center
Now remove the leaves in bunches, stack them, and slice them crosswise into thin strips. Cut again into bite-size lengths. Return the chopped pieces to the lemon water. Let them soak in the lemon water for 30 minutes, turning occasionally. The soak removes starchiness while it drains the bitter sap from between the bracts.
Meanwhile, whisk the dressing ingredients together in a large serving bowl (sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, chile, garlic & ginger), then add the rest of the salad ingredients to the bowl as they are ready.
Rinse the banana flower slices in a colander under running water until the water runs clear. You should have a heaping double handful of sliced banana flower. Drain and toss with other ingredients which have been marinating in the large bowl. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes (can also make several hours in advance); the flower will soften a bit yet still have some crunch, and take on more flavor.
Sprinkle with the peanuts & sesame seeds just before serving.