Anyone who has ever accidentally eaten plantains instead of bananas will most likely not have a problem telling the two fruits apart. If bananas are the dessert, then plantains would be the mashed potatoes. They look very similar to their sweeter banana cousins, but they are much starchier in consistency and blander in taste. The fruit grows in the same tropical regions as bananas, but they are not used for the same culinary purposes.
Some sources suggest that plantains should never be eaten raw or in their unripened green stage. Others say that they can be eaten throughout their entire ripening period, but must be prepared properly for their changing taste and texture. Plantains in their earliest stages have a green skin which cannot be peeled off easily. Cooks using them at this stage often cut them into 2 inch (5 cm) sections and boil them until they are the consistency of boiled potatoes.
As plantains continue to ripen, they become more of a yellow-orange than their bright yellow banana counterparts. They are still not sweet, but their flavor is not as bland as during the green stage. Finally, plantains ripen to a dark black color just before spoiling. At the overripe stage, the fruit is almost as sweet as a banana, and can be peeled by hand. Shoppers looking for a different kind of banana for cooking should consider buying these black-skinned plantains.
Ripe plantains are often sliced and deep fried in kettles to form chips. These chips have become popular snacks in recent years, replacing bags of peanuts on some airline menus. If the fruit has ripened sufficiently, the snack may be marketed as banana chips instead. Plantains are also used in Spanish and South American restaurants as side dishes, often serving as a raised border for overfilled plates.
The name comes from the Spanish word plantanos, although local populations may also refer to the fruit as machos. Plantains can be dried and crushed into a basic flour, and the leaves are occasionally used as serving plates.