Kitchen & Pantry

Banana chips: good, better, best

I always thought that banana chips were a Filipino thing. Apparently not. It’s all over — there is a recipe for banana chips with the skin on, there’s the baked variety and there’s even one where the banana slices are salted and spiced. And it appears that so many banana varieties can be made into chips.

In the Philippines, banana chips are made from hard, green Saba or Cavendish. They are produced for local consumption and for export. The Department of Agriculture website has detailed instructions on how to make them the traditional way. There are more complex processes for high-volume production such as vacuum frying and freezing.

Most banana chips are round with the banana cut horizontally into rings. As with any product, quality varies. Some are good, some are better than others and some are totally forgettable. I’ve eaten banana chips that are so thick and hard that you can crack your teeth in the attempt to masticate them. Some have way too much sugar coating that they stick to each other once you open the package and the air hits the sugar.

The best banana chips I have ever eaten was from the canteen of the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. They were thinner and longer (the bananas were sliced vertically) with just a wisp of sugar coating and, ergo, lighter and crispier. I was almost eight months pregnant with Sam and, due to some complications, I had to be confined at the hospital a week before my scheduled Caesarian Section. Close monitoring until I completed the eighth month then out comes the baby. I never could complete nine months of pregnancy. So, for a week, I did nothing but rest, read and watch TV. I was on IV drip and moving around wasn’t allowed. The whole time, I had my supply of those unforgettable banana chips.

We buy banana chips occasionally but it’s not a must have in our house. For some reason, Sam and Alex never developed an affinity for them. Maybe, it’s a generation thing. I belong to a generation before the country was deluged by imported chips that are just as widely available as the local banana chips.

Maybe, it’s a marketing thing. In most cases, production of banana chips is still a kind of large-scale cottage industry. No large factories in the league of Frito Lay’s. And makers of banana chips are not known for advertising on print and broadcast media. Even on the internet, local sellers and exporters are so much fewer and with less reach than big companies that have factories churning out thousands of bags of different kinds of chips in a fraction of the time it takes to make banana chips.

In many ways, banana chips fall under the comfort food label. They are a thing of nostalgia. A reminder of childhood. That’s why banana chips are found mostly in pasalubong (souvenir) centers more than anywhere else. Filipinos abroad (the main target market of exporters) who crave for them are not exactly the ones in their teens and twenties. Rather, they are the older ones — the ones who grew up here, experienced banana chips during their childhood, moved abroad and suddenly found that the familiar banana chips were no longer accessible.

Crave? Are banana chips that good that people would crave for them? Like I said, it is comfort food. And people crave for comfort food. But, as a culinary item, well… Some banana chips are way better than others in terms of quality but, in the Philippines, all banana chips are sweet. And they can be cloying after a while. They’re not like potato chips which can be flavored with a hundred different things because potatoes taste neutral and simply absorb whatever flavorings are added to them.

The thing is, it’s not as if there’s nothing but sugar that can be added to sliced bananas for making banana chips. The idea of adding salt and turmeric, for instance, is intriguing. I’m also thinking that a little cinnamon and nutmeg, or vanilla, in the sugar would turn banana chips into a new experience. Or, perhaps, ginger, kalamansi and honey. So many ways to make banana chips pop.

Think of cornick — corn kernels fried to a crisp — and even peanuts. When I was a child, peanuts were either boiled, boiled and dried, or fried. They were sold by hawkers, mostly ambulant. Then came Nagaraya cracker nuts — coated peanuts (that eventually came in so many flavors) — and children who never developed amore for boiled, boiled and dried, or fried peanuts were suddenly munching peanuts by the bagful. And cornick? Think how Boy Bawang revolutionized the cornick industry when it first hit the market in 2003. But I think that local banana chip makers, just like most local movie producers, would rather stick to the tried-and-tested formula that people patronize.

The inescapable thought, of course, is just how many banana chip lovers, in pure nostalgia fashion, would be left after my generation passes on. Will there be enough among the generations after mine, weaned and raised in Jack ‘n’ Jill and Oishi as they are, to sustain the local banana chip industry?

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