Wandering through Brick Lane on Sunday with my partner and a friend, we cross the sprawling pavement sellers of myriad goods, commenting on how chaotically like South East Asia it was to be wandering along a crowded street, dodging bikes and touts. Ahead of us, boxes of bananas were stacked up, and a woman calls out: “Normal bananas! Baby bananas!”
I walk past glancing curiously but with no intention of buying anything. “Baby banaNAS!” I take a few steps past her and then say to my partner: “Sugar ‘nanas? I have to look.” I walk back and look down at the boxes of bananas: they were indeed little, about the size of my thumb. I stop. I pick up a little bag of bananas. I peer closely at their skin: yes! It is thin, strongly indicative of the super sweet sugar bananas of home. I put the bananas down. I have had a huge lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant on Kingsland Road and I am much too full for bananas. What’s more, I don’t want to have to carry them all over London, before heading back to where we live in Southern England.
I look over at my partner and friend, who stand amidst the chaos, waiting patiently for me. To the woman standing near the boxes, I say: “How much for the little bananas?” “One pound,” she replies. “For each hand?” I ask, confused. Each hand is bagged separately, but some have only three fingers, and some have more than ten. “For the box,” she says dismissively.
I am heady with glee. One pound for a box of precious sugar bananas! For the many months that we have been in England, I have been eating cavendish (mostly fair-traded), not even my preferred lady fingers, which we used to buy at the Green Market from a man and his bewildered son, who grew them on their farm out near Gin Gin. In the supermarkets, you can only get cavendish – or dark green lady fingers. No thank you! We eat bananas almost everyday, on our morning cereal and muesli.
I rush over to my partner. “They’re only one pound for the box! AND they’re sugar ‘nanas. Can I have a pound?”
He hands me a pound, wordlessly, and I run back to the stall.
Beside me, a man caresses one of the little bananas and leans in to me: “These ones are good,” he says conspiratorally. I look down at the box he indicates, his hand resting proprietorally upon the lovely yellow bananas, still green tipped and the skin so fragile I can almost see it bruising under his fingers. I reply assuredly, my own hand on the box I want, “These are better.”
Transferring my box of sugar bananas into two bags, I return to my partner and friend. “Look!” I say, with joy. “Aren’t they cute? And they’re sugar bananas.”
Sugar bananas are tiny bananas. They are, perhaps, the smallest variety: no more than 3 or 4 inches. They are a brighter yellow than cavendish or lady finger, but because they ripen quickly and their skin is no more than a millimetre thick, they are often brown. The flesh, too, is more yellow, a creamy transluceny with clearly visible, but tiny, seeds. My mother likes hers mushily soft – I prefer mine slightly green tinged and harder. It is a battle, at home, of whether the sugar bananas will last long enough to be as ripe as my mother likes, before they have succumbed to my greed.
I am reminded of my mother when we were first able to get sugar bananas in Australia. She came home from the markets triumphantly nursing a large bag of bananas that looked much too ripe for my palette. My mother would often come home from markets with treats for us: bags of sugar plums and rambutans for me, if they were available; durian, mangosteens and custard apple for my sisters. The first time Um brought sugar bananas home from the markets, I was disappointed not to have sugar plums or rambutans. “Don’t you remember these?” Um said to us. “I do!” One of my elder sisters took some bananas from my mother and started peeling. I wrinkled my nose at the over ripe smell, and wandered away.
At dinner that night, my mother uses a spoon to slice bits of banana, eating them with her rice. She breaks off a banana to give to me and I say no. “You used to love these,” she admonishes. I shrug, a little sulky that I had not got rambutans instead.
The next day, I am looking for fruit to eat. My mother suggests I eat a banana and I say no. She sighs and says, “There are greener ones in the rice bin, but don’t eat them all.” In our rice bin are many more hands of the little bananas, and none of the lady fingers I think I prefer. I take out one, mostly green tinged, but with bits of yellow. It is kinda cute. I can eat it. I poke its skin and it browns straight away, which does not please me. Nevertheless, I peel and eat it. It is wonderfully sweet and much more pungent than other bananas. I take out another. And another.
My father saves some of the smaller bananas (he hides them from all of us, deep in the dark recesses of the pantry), he dries them out and tries to collect the miniscule seeds. A few years later, we have our own sugar bananas growing in our backyard orchard. I don’t know if they come from the seed, or if (as he is wont to do) he has asked for a cutting from the sellers. They don’t fruit as often as the larger banana, but they give my mother greater joy. Our house ceases to have lady fingers and I eat only the tiny bananas. Cavendish begin to look obscene, and much too large to be eaten.
Slowly, since living away from home, cavendish drift into the norm. They are the easiest to obtain, the most widely available, and the only ones with fair trade stickers. Even lady fingers have faded from my memory in this green and pleasant land. But, for this week only, fair trade, locally produced succumb to the pleasures of sweet tiny ‘nanas. I can eat four in a sitting. Oh, joy.