Food & Drink Allez cuisine!

Battle Banana ends in defeat for Iron Chef Indian

"Our lives are not in the lap of the gods,
but in the lap of our cooks."

- Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

Jesse Amado, a.k.a. Iron Chef Chinese, won the homegrown Battle Banana for the interplay of heat and sweet in his grilled bananas marinated in teriyaki and then glazed with honey-pineapple sauce and rolled in macadamia nuts.

Little did I know when I summoned friends over for an Iron Chef-inspired dinner, that the evening could also take on the finer points of wrestling. If you've seen the show on the Food Network, you know that the stage opens to reveal the Battle Kitchen with a dazzling light show, kinetic camera movement, and a booming soundtrack. In the home kitchen, the tunes blared and flashing digicams provided blinding concentrations of light. "Yomigaru Iron Chef!" called forth four untrained home-cook challengers: Chuck as Iron Chef Vietnamese, the charmer of the group, Lindsey as Iron Chef Lowbrow, master of anything deviled, Jesse as Iron Chef Chinese, the intimidating butt-kicker of the group, and me, of course, in the role of Iron Chef Indian, the boss and brass cook. Kyoo no tema wa kore desu ... today's theme is the world's largest herb and, as Chiquita likes to claim, most perfect food: the banana.

Yes, it should be noted that the banana plant is not a tree, but an herb, and is respected for its medicinal and nutritional value. Its curative properties range from curbing depression (bananas contain tryptophan) to calming the nerves to reducing high blood pressure to alleviating the swelling and irritation of mosquito bites to aiding in smoking cessation.

Allez Cuisine! Though without a studio audience or the ideal battle kitchen, our plan was to mimic the show by creating one dish each in 30 minutes. The frenetic culinary battle began with a huge pot of oil humming up to its required temperature. Banana peels covered every surface, including the floor, reminding one of slapstick jokes and our humble food's ability to foil progress. We invoked the Asian-American pop-culture expression "Destroy All Monsters" as we rushed to collect the slippery yellow slivers.

There's little you cannot do with the banana. I overheard such ideas as banana fajitas, banana scallopine, and I swear someone entertained cream of banana soup. The fruit is surprisingly malleable, lending itself as a vegetable paired with meats or rice, in sauces, spreads, jellies, jams, and chutneys, and as a filling in cakes, turnovers, tarts, and doughnuts. They can be fried, par-boiled, broiled, grilled, baked, and mashed in breads. Of course, the most obvious consumption is raw or in fruit salads.

As we neared the time limit, I wandered away from my curried banana chutney to sneak a peak at other creations. Chuck reigned over his section of the stove, deep frying thickly battered banana chunks, while Jesse's fruit, marinated in teriyaki and glazed with a honey-pineapple sauce, grilled to a lustrous finish. And Lindsey carved small impressions in her smallish bananas. Our host Rick called time slightly before the fire alarm blasted its smoke-choked ring. Frying food is fun, but a word to the wise, it's better to fry outside.

Presentation is as important as preparation, and all the dishes received high props from the judges. The powdered sugar atop the golden fried bananas provided a nice contrast of flavor and color, and the bananas' texture was smooth and crunchy. Spicy and sweet, the grilled teriyaki bananas rolled in crushed macadamia nuts were addictive. And the deviled bananas, stuffed with a mixture of diced red peppers and pickles, showed a fresh and unlikely mellowing offset by the piquancy of the green, under-ripe banana.

The judges voted Chuck's deep-fried yum-yums, displayed on a rectangular white platter and dressed with elegant restraint in violet dendrobium orchid blossoms, best in show for aesthetics, while Jesse's grilled goodies took best in flavor for the interplay of heat and sweet.

Unfortunately, my chutney received only derisive comments regarding its close resemblance, in taste and texture, to porridge. One judge suggested throwing it into the compost pile. As it goes on Iron Chef:

Ohta: "How'd it go?"

Morimoto: I've worked with some weird stuff in my time, but I can honestly say that I've never dealt with anything like that before.

Ohta: This from a man who's combined natto with Coke. How'd your dishes turn out?

Morimoto: I did my best.

Ohta: And the verdict?

Morimoto: A win would be nice.

By Melissa Sutherland-Amado

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