Last year, when India was battling the deadly second wave of Covid-19, it inspired a silent revolution in the south Indian state of Karnataka. This was centred on a rather unusual ingredient: banana flour.
From cooking demonstrations and competitions to videos, workshops, webinars and scores of WhatsApp messages, social media was flooded with posts of banana flour.
Creativity and curiosity at play
It all started when Nayana Anand, 42, a farmer from Tumkur district’s Athikatte village posted on a WhatsApp group called ATV (Anytime Vegetable) a series of dishes she had made for a whole week using banana “This was at a time when Covid had forced people to consume what they had,” Anand tells The National.
The admin of the group happened to be Shree Padre, the editor of Adike Patrike Farm Magazine and someone who had already been working on a campaign to popularise banana flour aka bakahu (short for balekai hudi or raw banana powder in Kannada) in a bid to research value-added products.
“Banana farmers were battling a steep fall in price due to lack of demand and were forced to trash large parts of their produce,” Padre tells The National. “Anand had done such a great job of creatively using bananas from her farm [that] I told her about a lady called Jayambika from Kerala, who had turned entrepreneur by powdering raw banana. This piqued her curiosity and she insisted I help her learn this process.”
Padre put Anand in touch with Jissy George, a subject matter specialist at Krishi Vigyan Kendra, a knowledge network that’s part of India’s National Agricultural Research System. George took Anand through the process of making flour using raw banana. After having successfully experimented with it, Anand circled back to Padre, who in turn posted the method of making bakahu on his Facebook page.
“This post went instantly viral. I was flooded with messages and pictures from farmers and homemakers making the flour and experimenting with dishes as varied as rotis, dosas, idlis, puris and even gulab jamun,” says Padre. The culinary brain wave of using banana flour indigenously even garnered appreciation from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who mentioned it in his Mann Ki Baat programme last July.
Padre says that while the concept of banana flour is not new (it has been used as baby food in Kerala and as a fasting food in Maharashtra), using it in home cooking as part of a daily diet has tremendous potential.
Make your own banana flour
The process of making flour from raw banana is fairly simple and involves slicing raw or green bananas with or without the peel. The sliced banana is soaked in water mixed with rice starch and rock salt before sun-drying it for between three and five days, after which it can be powdered and stored.
“We use about three glasses of buttermilk for 10 litres of water instead of rice starch,” says Vasundhara Hedge, 40, a farmer from Sirsi, who sold about 200 kilograms of flour within a month. Hedge, who makes about 30kg each week, supplies it to supermarkets and traders all over Karnataka. “The flour with the peel is suited for savoury dishes such as rotis and dosas, while the one prepared without the peel works well for sweets such as halwa and burfi,” explains Hedge.
Crucially, banana flour can be made by anyone and using any variety of the fruit (although ready-made options are available in the UAE at health store Hayawiia). One neither need be a farmer nor have fancy equipment.
A nutrient-dense option
Banana flour is a highly nutritious food, which is increasingly being viewed as the perfect gluten-free alternative to wheat and other refined flours. It is a grain-free source of complex carbohydrates and is also suitable for vegans.
“Green banana flour is loaded with resistant starch. Hence it is prevents any fluctuations or spike in blood sugar levels. It regulates your appetite, prevents overeating and also boosts the absorption of nutrients,” explains Luke Coutinho, a holistic lifestyle coach − integrative and lifestyle medicine, from Mumbai. He says its consumption is recommended during pregnancy and post-pregnancy, while weaning, as well as for lifestyle conditions such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension.
Banana flour is also extremely effective for gut health. “Resistant starch is an excellent prebiotic and boosts the health of gut microbes. Rich in minerals, banana flour can be a healthier alternative to conventional cereals such as maida and wheat,” says Dr Raghu K C, a food expert and nutritionist from Bengaluru.
Additionally, it is a product that reduces post-harvest loss and effectively prevents distress sales.
The future of banana flour looks promising indeed. “The best is yet to come, as this is a product that combines nutrition and palatability,” predicts Dr V Venkatasubramanian, director of ICAR-Agricultural Technology Application Research Institute in Bengaluru, which is planning to launch an awareness campaign in the coming months.
“There is demand for banana flour not only in the national, but international market too,” adds Uma Subbaraya, director at the National Research Centre for Banana in Tamil Nadu. “But for it to become a successful commercial venture, research and efforts need to be directed towards maintaining a standard with respect to the preparation, quality, hygiene, packaging and branding. This will take the product to the next level.”