Field of Science

Plantains - Common name & culinary confusion

There are times when the Phactor wonders if someone is putting me on with some the questions that people ask.  Here's what someone asks, "I've heard a lot about fried plantains, how good they are, and I'd like to try them."  "Since I have plenty in my lawn can you tell me how your prepare them."  It's highly unlikely that this email came from any place in the tropics.  So let me explain the problem.  Plantain is a common name for two (or more?) very different plants.  There's those broad-leafed lawn weeds in the genus Plantago, and then there's the starchy banana, plantanos.  When the latter is nicely ripe (really black skin), fried plantains are one of the joys of Latin American cuisine.  If the Phactor recalls rightly, the particular lawn weed in question is edible, and it might make a credible salad green or spinachy type vegetable, but forget about frying them.  So nowadays many big markets and Latino groceries have plantains which look like a big, angled bananas.  You usually buy them under ripe and then let them sit around until they ripen.  Then you peel them, cut them into convenient sized pieces, and fry them in butter until they begin to brown and carmelize a bit.  No idea how two such different plants got the same common name, but this seldom causes confusion because people who have plantains or plantains growing in their yards live quite a distance apart neither knowing or much caring about the other.  Maybe this is part of the wonder of the internet, and a good demonstration of why common names are so often problems.


mr_subjunctive said...

Merriam-Webster on-line says it's ultimately because both have broad leaves:

Origin of PLANTAIN
Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin plantagin-, plantago, from planta sole of the foot; from its broad leaves -- more at place

Origin of PLANTAIN
Spanish plántano, plátano plane tree, banana tree, from Medieval Latin plantanus plane tree, alteration of Latin platanus -- more at plane

Both, if you keep following the etymologies back, ultimately trace back to Greek platys (broad) and Latin planta (sole of foot).

The Phytophactor said...

Wondered if broad-leafed had anything to do with it, but didn't know. Thanks for the info.