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Going Mai'a In Hawaii

banana - Pretend you don't know what the word 'mai'a' means and ponder these two questions:
What is the fruit that got Adam and Eve into so much trouble? and What is the most popular fruit in the United States? Most people would answer 'apple.' But as you are most likely in Hawaii at as you read these words there is a chance that you know that 'mai'a' is the Hawaiian word for banana.

The answer to the first question is that according to Hindu legend, it was a banana, not an apple, that got our earliest ancestors kicked out of our true Spiritual homes. Thus, we are doomed while in mortal form to strive for the higher consciousness that was ours to begin with. All because of a banana.

As for the second question, bananas far outdistance apples as the most popular fruit in the United States. In fact, Americans eat about 11.5 billion bananas a year. Don't ask me who did the math for that one. The banana is also the most popular fruit in Europe, Japan and Canada.

The largest exporters of bananas are Ecuador, Costa Rica, Columbia, the Philippines, Honduras and Panama (in that order). However, exported bananas are only 15 percent of total world production. The rest of the bananas are consumed locally as a staple food, and are eaten raw or cooked in ethnic cuisines around the world.

Human association with the banana plant goes back thousands of years. The plant played a significant part in ancient Hawaiian culture and traditions. The banana was considered the fruit of the gods and was a delicacy to the ancient Hawaiians. It was also considered bad luck to dream of bananas. Until the early 1800's, all but two varieties were kapu (forbidden) for women to eat. In religious ceremonies the Hawaiians would trick the gods by using the stalk of a banana plant in place of a human for a sacrifice. The leaves were considered sacred enough to sometimes use as a cover for small shrines.

A thought-provoking feature of the banana plant is that each stalk bears only one bunch of bananas, after which it dies. Thus, a Hawaiian saying goes, “man is like a banana the day it bears fruit," meaning that he dies when his work is done. A well-known Hawaiian legend tells that a long, long time ago all bananas bore their fruit on upright stems like the mountain banana. The lowland and the mountain bananas quarreled and fought a terrible war. The lowlanders were defeated, causing them to eternally hang their heads in shame.

There are over types of 300 edible bananas and many ornamental varieties. The fruit isn't the only part of the plant that is eaten. The starchy rhizomes or underground runners of some species are staples in many Asian local diets. The immature banana flower is eaten in China and throughout Southeast Asia. Other parts of the banana plant may also be eaten. The celery-like banana “heart” can be removed from the center of the stem after harvest. When cooked, it has a texture and taste similar to bamboo shoots. New shoots and male buds, after the removal of the outer bracts, can also be cooked as vegetables.

The leaves of the banana plant serve a host of functions in warm climates. They are used as serving trays or plates for foods. They are used to wrap around foods for cooking, much like the ti leaf is used in Hawaii. The leaves retain the moisture content of the food and tolerate cooking heat without adding any additional flavors to the food. Anyone who has traveled in Asia has seen people using the leaves as makeshift umbrellas during sudden downpours.

Although we commonly say that bananas grow on trees or refer to them as banana plants, they are actually gigantic, perennial herbs. Bananas are closely related to the bird-of paradise, heliconia and prayer plant families and are distant cousins to orchids and lilies. As herbs, bananas have been used nutritionally and medicinally for thousands of years.

Bananas pack a hefty punch of nutrients. They have no cholesterol, are 99.5 percent fat-free, contain low sodium, and have a high insoluble fiber content, making them excellent bulking and intestinal cleansing agents. A ripe banana in the morning can help keep constipation at bay.

Bananas contain a huge amount of potassium, which is essential for helping muscles to contract properly during exercise and reduce cramps. Potassium also helps maintain proper body fluid balance, especially important to blood pressure regulation. An excellent New England Journal of Medicine study reported that one extra serving a day of a potassium-rich food can cut the risk of death from stoke by as much as 40 percent.

Vitamin B-6, important in protein metabolism, is also plentiful in bananas. Lack of B-6 in a diet can cause weakness, irritability and insomnia. Also found in bananas are several other B-vitamins, vitamin C and lesser amounts of magnesium, copper, iron and phosphorus.

Bananas are great baby food. The flower of the plant contains honey that the Hawaiians would use as a vitamin to give their babies. Mashed, bananas are often the first solid food given to infants. They are easy to digest and rarely cause allergic reactions. Kids love them for not only their taste, but also because their carbohydrate content addresses the energy needs of the active, growing children.

The plant's medicinal value goes beyond its use as a food. The pounded peels of ripe bananas can be used to make a poultice for wounds. The peel has antibacterial properties and may be wrapped directly around wounds or cuts in an emergency.

Nutritionists emphasize that the starting point of a good diet is to have five daily servings of fruit and vegetables. Bananas are a perfect choice for inclusion into your daily diet. They are easy to digest and their carbohydrate content supplies the body with a time-release energy flow, satisfying sugar cravings.

A final bit of banana trivia: Did you know that the song, "Yes We Have No Bananas," sold half-a-million copies in 1923? No, not records, but sheet music!

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