February 19, 2011

Going bananas

The supermarket here sells the usual Cavendish bananas but they occasionally stock other varieties, including the popular "emperor" bananas (small and sweet bananas with thin peel and little thready fibre) which you can find across Asia. Red bananas, on the other hand, are relatively more exotic (at least for me in Hong Kong). The supermarket here labels these as "Moroccan red bananas" but it seems that these are grown in Asia as well.

As for the flavor, they're a bit firmer and less mealy/mushy than regular Cavendishes. While they're still sweet and have the familar banana flavour, I thought the red ones had a little more tartness and complexity to them which I don't find in the normal yellow Cavendish.

Have you ever wondered why you can buy different kinds of apples, pears, potatoes and melons, but across the (developed) world, you usually can only buy one kind of banana (the Cavendish)? The reason for the domination of the Cavendish banana in supermarkets is mainly because of its hardiness/ability to withstand long-distance transport and ease of propagation. However, the whole banana issue is pretty complex - when you are dependent on only one single type of banana, you render the commercial crop vulnerable to pests/disease [viz. the Irish dependency on potatoes that caused the potato famine in the 1800s]). Also, the Cavendish is a relatively bland flavour, but it is popular because it is easy to ship and keeps for a long time. This means that consumers have sacrificed variety and taste in favour of convenience and mass production.

I find this kind of social info pretty fascinating because I believe that we take so many conveniences for granted in our 21st century lives.

For example, in Hong Kong, Sunkist oranges from California still dominate the market, even though it would probably be simpler and more cost-effective to buy fresh oranges grown in Asia/closer to home. Also, how can oranges/apples/strawberries shipped thousands of miles across the Pacific arrive in stores so fresh and sold at such a relatively low cost? Oranges from California at 40 US cents each? Apples from Washington state for US 30 cents each? I suspect that some of these costs, e.g. pollution and waste, is being passed on to the public and on to nature and is not being reflected in the supermarket sticker price.

And why doesn't China start growing high-quality perishable fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, and other "Western" fruit? I'm sure there is a huge market in Asia for reasonably priced "luxury" fruits. I would totally buy blueberries grown in the region rather than blueberries flown all the way from Chile (which is what you currently get in the stores here for US$0.60 - $1.20 per 125g carton - how can they sell them so cheap?!).

Actually there are many types of bananas: at my parents' home in Hong Kong, they grow the common banana (or "big banana" in Cantonese), which is fatter and shorter than the Cavendish. It's also tart with only a mild sweetness which I like as it's not overwhelming. The ones my parents grow also occasionally produce black seeds. When was the last time you saw seeds in your supermarket banana?

Confession: my parents merely tend the banana plants, which grow wild in many places in Hong Kong. It's mainly transplanting the offshoots [bananas can reproduce by seeds which are genetically different or by offshoots which are clones] to avoid overcrowding, harvesting bananas and chopping down the trunks/stems to make room for new plants once the fruit is harvested as each plant usually only produces a single hand of fruit.

If you're interested in reading more about the commercial banana and the current challenge to the global crop caused by an infectious fungus, I highly recommend a recent New Yorker article from January 2011 by Mike Peed: We Have No Bananas (Scientists fight a devastating banana blight) -- subscription might be required but you can see a related short video for free on the magazine's Tumblr site (also pretty interesting).


  1. Wow. I think you pay less for fruit in HK than I do here in the US and I'm much closer to the sources. I've always made the assertion that there is a fixed cost to every action, but it's not all financial. In the fruit case, most of the cost is environmental.

    Can you get Florida oranges in HK? I'm not a big fan of the CA ones and would get Florida ones even when I lived in CA.

    It's always better to get local food so you can help preserve genetic diversity. I don't like to read about how one variety is grown more than others just because it ships more easily. Should I really be eating "fresh" food that can survive a 5000 mile journey in a container ship? Crikey.

  2. I think most of our US oranges come from California, but you can get Florida's Natural (http://www.floridasnatural.com/) juice in many stores here. They also sell Tropicana but it's made in China.

    We also get cheap navel oranges from South Africa too and also totally random fruit like Granny Smiths from France at about 30 US cents each. I don't really want to think about the wax, preservatives, pesticides etc etc they spray on the fruit to make it last the long journey to supermarkets here. And how can fruit from the EU be so cheap because labor costs there should be quite high? The whole system really is quite suspect.

    One thing I do like about Asia is that we do get a lot of local and regional fruits & veg which are available only when they're in season. In HK, we get our regular yellow bananas from the Philippines, which is only about an hour's flight away. I guess this might make it more "local" than say, buying a California orange in New York, even though it's across the ocean and from another country.

  3. Interesting blog. The locally grown/slow food movement is becoming more noticed in the U.S. but still the large supermarkets and their shipped-in fruits and vegetables prevail, even in areas where local options are available.
    After eating really fresh tomatoes, strawberries, corn, green beans, peaches...etc. buying the supermarket option is no longer an option for me.
    And I must admit, I've never eaten anything other than yellow bananas, I've not noticed another kind available in the US, so look forward to trying another kind someday, somewhere!--Terri