Plantains, also known as cooking bananas or green bananas, are a staple ingredient in many Latin American and Caribbean cuisines. While not as sweet as dessert bananas, plantains have a starchy texture that makes them ideal for frying, baking, mashing, and other cooking applications. But are plantains actually used in authentic Mexican cuisine?
Yes, plantains are used in some traditional Mexican dishes, especially in southern regions of the country that have cultural ties to Central America. However, they are not as ubiquitous in Mexican cooking as other staples like corn, beans, rice, tomatoes, and chiles.
Plantains in Mexican Cuisine
Plantains are most commonly found in Mexican dishes that have origins in Central American or Caribbean cuisines, where plantains are a dietary staple. The southernmost Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, and Veracruz border Guatemala and have cuisines influenced by Central American culture.
Some examples of Mexican dishes that may incorporate plantains include:
- Pico de gallo – A fresh salsa made with chopped tomatoes, onions, chiles, cilantro, and sometimes chopped plantain.
- Tostones – Twice fried green plantain slices, pressed flat. A popular appetizer or side dish.
- Platanos con crema – Plantain slices sauteed in butter and served with sour cream.
- Tacos de platanos – Plantain tacos filled with beans, cheese, meat or other ingredients.
- Platano en mole – Plantains cooked in mole sauce, a classic Mexican sauce made from chiles, spices, seeds, nuts, and chocolate.
- Tamales de platanos – Tamales stuffed with mashed plantains instead of the more common masa or corn dough.
These dishes are more common in southern coastal areas of Mexico. Further inland, plantains become less common in Mexican cooking. They are not a staple ingredient in famous Mexican dishes like tacos, enchiladas, burritos, or fajitas. However, plantains may sometimes be offered as a side dish or appetizer.
Differences from Other Latin Cuisines
While plantains are used in Mexican cuisine, they are much more central to the cuisines of Central America, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American regions. Some key differences:
- Plantains are eaten at all stages of ripeness in Latin Caribbean cuisine, from starchy green plantains to sweet, black plantains. Mexican cuisine tends to only use green plantains.
- Plantains are served as a side dish or appetizer more often in Mexico. In the Caribbean, Cuba, and Central America, they are a primary ingredient in many entrees and main dishes.
- Dishes like patacones (smashed and fried green plantain slices), mariquitas (crispy plantain chips), and maduros (sweet fried ripe plantains) are Caribbean/Central American specialties not commonly found in authentic Mexican restaurants.
- Plantains are used more often in everyday home cooking in tropical Latin American countries. Plantains are not grown as widely or used as frequently in most regions of Mexico.
So while plantains play a role in Mexican cuisine, especially near the country’s southern borders, they are not as dominant or essential to Mexican cooking as corn, beans, rice, avocado, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and other iconic Mexican ingredients.
Plantains as Part of the Mesoamerican Diet
Though plantains are not a primary staple in modern day Mexican cooking, there is evidence that they were an important food source in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations that inhabited southern Mexico and Central America. Plantains were first domesticated at least 7,000 years ago in Southeast Asia before spreading to Africa and eventually being introduced to Latin America in the 1500s by Portuguese and Spanish colonists.
But research indicates Mesoamerican groups like the Mayans were cultivating and consuming plantains much earlier than the colonial era. Plantain remains dated to 600 BCE have been identified at Mayan sites on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Writings and artwork also indicate they were grown near homes and harvested as a dietary supplement by Mayans before Europeans arrived.
As civilizations based on corn cultivation, plantains may have served as a complementary crop to maize for ancient Mayans and Aztecs, providing additional fiber, nutrients, and carbohydrate energy sources. However, they were likely harvested from semi-wild specimens at forest edges rather than intensively cultivated. Plantains faded from prominence as dominance of staple maize crops increased over centuries in Mesoamerica.
Though not a nutritional powerhouse like leafy greens or citrus fruits, plantains can provide some beneficial vitamins, minerals, and fiber as part of a balanced diet. Here is the nutritional profile of a typical raw plantain (about 118 grams):
As the table shows, plantains are low in fat and sodium but provide a good amount of fiber, vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, and magnesium. The starch in plantains also breaks down into natural sugars when ripe, providing an energy boost.
Some potential health benefits associated with plantains when consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet include:
- Improved digestion – The dietary fiber in plantains can help promote regularity and healthy digestion.
- Heart health – Potassium helps control blood pressure while the magnesium relaxes blood vessels.
- Reduced ulcers – Compounds in plantains may help protect the stomach lining and reduce ulcer risk.
- Diabetes aid – The low glycemic index of unripe plantains helps control blood sugar rises after meals.
- Stronger bones – Vitamin C aids collagen production while magnesium improves calcium absorption for bone mineralization.
- Immunity boost – Plantains provide vitamin C and vitamin A, both key nutrients for immune function.
Keep in mind that highly fried or sugary plantain dishes would offer less nutritional benefits and should be enjoyed in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet.
Plantains vs. Bananas
Although plantains are often referred to as “cooking bananas” due to their starchier texture and need to be cooked before eating, they differ from dessert bananas in a few key ways:
- Plantains are lower in sugar and higher in starch and fiber than bananas. Ripe plantains contain about 3-4 grams of sugar per 100 grams versus 12-16 grams in a typical yellow banana.
- Raw plantains are not sweet when ripe and have a neutral starchy flavor. Bananas develop a sweet, fruity taste when ripe.
- Plantain skins remain thick and greenish-yellow when ripe instead of turning yellow or brown like bananas.
- When cooked, plantains take on a potato-like consistency vs. the soft, creamy texture of cooked bananas.
- Plantains are cooked at various stages of ripeness for different dishes. Bananas are mostly eaten raw and ripe.
So while plantains and bananas belong to the same genus (Musa) they have distinct culinary differences and uses.
Where to Find Plantains in Mexico
If looking to cook some authentic Mexican plantain dishes at home, you can find plantains at most Latin grocery stores or supermarkets in Mexico. Green unripe plantains are most common since these are used in savory dishes. Look for firm, green fruit without black spots. In some areas like Veracruz or Tabasco, you may also find yellow or black sweet plantains (maduros) used in desserts. Street markets in southern Mexico cities may have plantain vendors.
Supermarkets like Soriana, Chedraui, and Walmart in Mexico often sell plantains, especially in states bordering Central America. For small towns without Latin grocery stores, roadside fruit stands may offer plantains when in season.
In the US, plantains are also easy to find at major supermarkets like Kroger, Safeway, or Target in areas with a large Latino population. They are also ubiquitous in Hispanic/Caribbean grocery stores like La Placita or Cardenas Markets. Be sure to look for green, firm plantains without blemishes or bruising.
How to Choose Ripe Plantains
The ripeness of a plantain affects its taste, texture, and best cooking methods. Here is an overview of how to choose plantains at different stages:
- Green: Very starchy and not sweet. Best for frying, boiling, or mashing. Skin is thick and hard.
- Mostly Green: Some black spots. Starch breaking down slightly. Good for boiling or sautéing. Peel is thicker.
- Yellow with Black Spots: Softer, sweeter flesh. Best for roasting, grilling, or sautéing. Easier to peel.
- Black: Sweetest flavor. Used for sweet plantain dishes or eating raw. Soft peel.
For savory cooking applications like tostones, look for the greenest, firmest plantains possible. Avoid plantains with mushy black ends or bruises. For sweeter maduros or mofongo dishes, choose plantains that are mostly black with some yellowing.
Ways to Cook Plantains
There are several popular ways plantains are prepared in Mexican and other Latin cuisine. These cooking methods take advantage of plantains’ starchy qualities:
- Frying – Green plantain slices or smashed discs are fried into tostones or patacones. Riper plantains also fried into maduros.
- Baking/roasting – Baked sweet plantains are soft and caramelized. Can be eaten as a side dish.
- Boiling – Unripe plantains boiled whole and then mashed or added to soups.
- Grilling – Grilled over an open flame, caramelizing the natural sugars.
- Mashing – Boiled green plantains mashed into a thick paste called mofongo.
- Sautéing – Riper plantains sliced and pan-fried with spices and veggies.
Frying is most common for green plantains, while roasting, grilling, or sautéing brings out the sweetness in riper yellow and black plantains. Plantains are rarely eaten raw due to their starchiness, but can be enjoyed baked or boiled.
Popular Mexican Plantain Dishes
Here are some traditional plantain recipes enjoyed in various regions of Mexico:
Twice fried green plantain discs. Often served as an appetizer, side dish, or taco topping.
Grilled slices of sweet plantain served with black beans, cheese, sour cream, and tortillas.
Tacos de Platanos
Small tortillas filled with mashed plantains, refried beans, onion, cilantro, and lime juice.
Platanos con Crema
Pan-fried sweet plantains topped with sour cream and cinnamon.
Platanos en Mole
Plantains cooked in the complex sweet-spicy mole sauce along with chicken or meat.
Tamales de Platanos
Savory tamales with a plantain dough instead of the more typical masa or cornmeal dough.
Global Plantain Dishes
Beyond Mexico, plantains are used in cuisines worldwide. Here are some other popular plantain recipes:
Mofongo (Puerto Rico)
Mashed fried plantains with garlic, pork, and broth. Often filled with meat or seafood.
Fufu (West Africa)
A starchy dough made from boiling and pounding plantains and cassava.
Matoke (East Africa)
Plantains boiled or steamed in banana leaves and mashed into a paste.
Pisang Goreng (Indonesia)
Plantain fritters battered and fried with sesame seeds and spices.
Rajas con Platanos (Guatemala)
Sauteed plantains with green bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and seasonings.
While less ubiquitous than in the cuisines of Central America and the Caribbean, plantains are used in some traditional Mexican dishes, especially in the southern region. Though not a dietary staple, they can provide variety as well as beneficial nutrients. Green plantains lend their starchy quality to fried snacks and sides, while riper plantains roast and grill into sweet accompaniments. Those looking for authentic plantain recipes in Mexico can find ingredients at Latin grocers and markets in the right regions.