Kerala’s banana chips, or upperi, use a 2,000-year-old Roman cooking technique

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Thinly sliced ​​and fried in coconut oil, Kerala’s upperi, or banana chips, resemble a pile of gold coins lying in a treasure chest. No meal in this southern state of India is ever complete without these crunchy snacks, and a handful is never enough to satisfy cravings.

A classic Kerala snack, banana chips are a favorite of many, whether you’re from the southern Indian state or not. Maybe it’s the fact that it goes with literally anything you eat, or the fact that you can carry it around and sneak in a few bites while you’re on the go. Some would even call it the “taste of Kerala,” but you’d be surprised to learn that this snack actually originated in Rome. At least the cooking technique.

From Rome to Africa to Kerala

The technique of frying banana chips was first mentioned in Apicius, a Roman cookbook
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Bonho1962

Records show that the technique of frying banana chips was first mentioned in Apicius, a Roman cookbook in which chefs used olive oil to fry plantains. However, the plantain is native to Africa and the Caribbean, and this is where the story unfolds….

Did you know already?

The Apicius Cookbook was written by Caelius Apicius in Rome in the fourth century AD. His cookbook is said to have contained over 500 recipes, some of which also used Indian spices.

It is believed that Alexander the Great of Greece imported plantain sometime around 327 BC. discovered during his campaign in north-east Africa and took him to Europe. It traveled with him as he conquered the eastern Mediterranean region, Egypt, the Middle East and other parts of Asia including India. This is how plantain cultivation began in southern India.

Plantains have played an important role in South Indian cuisine throughout time, and banana chips remain popular with people of all ages. Banana chips are made from it near variety of bananas. These plantains can be eaten raw after cooking and can be enjoyed as fruit when ripe.

Banana Chips recipe is as easy to make as it is to eat. Buy raw Nendran plantains, peel them and cut the fruit into thin slices. Heat the oil in an iron wok, place the slices in the boiling oil, fry and strain with a slotted spoon when golden brown.

Memories of banana chips

Kerala Banana Chips or Upperi

Every home in Kerala has a different story about banana chips
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Those were the days of pure bliss. The texture of the banana chips would be crisp and crunchy, and we’d love to eat them fresh out of the oil.

– Abel Paul, 26

It was the summer of 2009 and 12-year-old Abel Paul jumped at any opportunity that would take him back to his mother’s hometown of Kerala, India. It wasn’t just about meeting cousins ​​and family members for him, holidays also meant eating plenty and climbing trees to get the ripest mangoes. Paul was studying in Palakkad at that time and his mother’s house was in a town called Pathanamthitta.

Upon arriving home, Paul was surrounded by his grandparents, cousins ​​and the rest of the family. While everyone caught up with the others, Paul and his cousins ​​made their way to the kitchen, where one of his uncles was frying the first fresh batch of upperi, or banana chips. The kids would then engage with it and complete the first batch in seconds. After all, it’s hard to resist.

“Those were the days of pure bliss. The texture of the banana chips would be crisp and crunchy, and we’d love to eat them fresh out of the oil. Especially during Onam (Kerala’s harvest festival) we always fought over who gets the most banana chips. It’s been a few years since we’ve all gotten together like this, mostly because we’re all in different places, but that memory is what captures my love for banana chips,” said Abel Paul, 26, a Gulf News reader who lives in Auroville, Pondicherry in India.

We used to eat the freshly fried portion during tea time, and then my sister and I would help by storing it in airtight jars – sometimes even sneaking into the kitchen at night and eating

– Saira Anish, 41

There used to be one family member who perfected the art of slicing and frying banana chips—usually the matriarchs of the house. However, over time, frying upperi in Kerala has become more of a commercial activity. For 41-year-old Indian emigrant Saira Anish from Dubai, banana chips symbolize the start of a long vacation. “I grew up eating banana chips. I watched my grandmother and mother in the kitchen patiently slicing plantains while the oil was being heated. We used to eat the freshly fried portion during tea time, and then my sister and I would help by storing it in airtight jars – sometimes even sneaking into the kitchen at night and eating. Even now, when I take my kids on summer vacation, I see the same curiosity I had in them. Frying banana chips is a ‘tradition’ – if I can call it that – and we make sure to make a fresh batch every year.”

It used to be so quick, almost like an art form, and the aroma just lured me into trying a fresh bite. I can still remember the aroma. A lot has changed over the years, but I love that this path still remains the same

– Liju Cheruvathur, 40

For another 40-year-old Indian expatriate from Dubai, Liju Cheruvathur, the snack also takes him back to his childhood. “The best thing about banana chips is that the flavor that comes out of the snack is very unique. I’m from Calicut and there used to be a bookshop on Mavoor Road. I used to go there a lot as a kid to buy books and this street had these vendors on either side peeling, slicing and frying the banana. It used to be so quick, almost like an art form, and the aroma just lured me into trying a fresh bite. I can still remember the aroma. A lot has changed over the years, but I love that this path still remains the same.”

Today, this popular snack is made in both salty and sweet forms, with the former version being preferred over the latter. Here’s how you can cook Kerala upper or banana chips at home:

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Servings: 15 to 20 servings

Ingredients:

Coconut oil for frying

Method:

1. To peel the plantains, first cut off the top and bottom tips of the fruit. Next, peel off the skin. Also note that the lighter the color of the plantain peel, the crispier the chip.

2. Wash plantains in water with half a teaspoon of salt.

3. Cut the plantain in half and thinly slice. You can also use a mandoline slicer to speed up the process.

4. Pour oil into a deep pan – about 2 inches deep – and add the sliced ​​banana once the oil is hot. Let it cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir constantly with a slotted spoon so it cooks evenly.

5. Before removing the fried chips, add 1/2 teaspoon of salt in oil, then place the chips on a paper towel-lined tray or bowl to soak up any excess oil. Fry in portions.

6. Store in an airtight container. Serve if necessary. Enjoy!

Recipe courtesy: Santhamma John, Gulf News reader

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