Saging na saba (saba bananas)

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With its cheap price, you’d think it was nothing special; nothing extraordinary. With gourmet ingredients that cost an arm and leg–like saffron, salmon roe and blowfish–any non-Filipino would mistake the lowly saging na saba as just another so-so third world produce. Well, saba bananas are a delight for any cook worth his salt. There is quite nothing like it. According to feedbacks, the western plaintain bananas are no match for the PhilippinesÔ saging na saba. It is an ingredient in chicken, pork and beef entrees; it is also great for a midday snack or for dessert. It is also known as banana musa.

What is it exactly? For starters, it is the only variety of banana I know of that cannot be eaten without first being cooked. Secondly, saba has to be very ripe before cooking. No amount of cooking will make an underripe saba banana palatable.

The basic way of cooking saba is to boil or steam them with their skin on. We call it nilagang saging or boiled bananas. The raw saba is sliced or diced and cooked with kamote (sweet potatoes), gabi (taro), langka (jackfruit), sago (tapioca balls) and bilo-bilo (glutinous rice balls) in coconut milk and sugar to make guinataang halo-halo.

A popular snack, sold mainly by street vendors, is the bananaque–deep-fried saba, in bamboo skewers, with lots of brown sugar. There is also the turon–deep-fried saba in lumpia (spring roll) wrapper. Shredded langka is usually added to the banana before wrapping.

As an ingredient in main dishes, saba is normally pan-fried before being added to the dish. Pork lengua estofado, pochero and arroz a la Cubana are just some of the popular Filipino dishes that include saba among the ingredients.

But it is as dessert that saba is truly special. The easiest way to turn saba into a dessert is to boil it with sugar. As the saba cooks, the liquid turns into a syrup. Popularly called minatamis na saging (sweetened bananas), my husband always adds powdered sugar to the bananas in syrup before eating them. We once tried serving minatamis na saging with scoops of ice cream and called it banana a la mode.

The basic minatamis na saging are diced when used for making halo-halo, literally, mix-mix, a summer snack made with fruits and preserves, milk, sugar, crushed ice and topped with custard and ube halaya (purple yam jam).

Personally, the best recipe for saba bananas that I have come across with was a recipe sent by a reader of this blog. In SamÔs recipe, the saba bananas are first fried in butter, then braised in honey and kalamansi juice, and, finally, served with sweetened condensed milk and sprinkled with cinnamon powder. That is gourmet saba bananas.

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