Sliced into thin disks and deep fried in coconut oil, Kerala’s upperi or banana chips resemble a pile of gold coins placed in a treasure chest. No meal in this southern state of India is ever complete without these crispy snacks, and a handful is never enough to curb a craving.
A classic snack from Kerala, banana chips is a favourite among many, whether you are from the south Indian state or not. Perhaps it is the fact that it pairs well with literally anything you eat, or the fact that you can carry it around and sneak in a few mouthfuls while you’re on the go. Some would even call it the ‘taste of Kerala’, but you would be surprised to know that this snack is actually from Rome. At least, the cooking technique is.
From Rome, to Africa to Kerala
Records show that the deep-frying technique of banana chips was first mentioned in Apicius, a Roman cookbook, where chefs used olive oil to fry plantains. However, the plantain is resident to Africa and the Carribbean, and here’s where the story unravels….
It is believed that Alexander the Great from Greece discovered the plantain in northeast Africa, sometime around 327 BC during his military campaign, and took it back with him to Europe. It travelled with him as he conquered the eastern Mediterranean region, Egypt, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia along the way, which includes India. Thus began the plantain cultivation in south India.
Over time, plantain has played an integral role in south India’s cuisine, and banana chips remain a favourite among people of all ages. Banana chips are made from the nendran variety of bananas. These plantains can be eaten raw after being cooked, and can be enjoyed as a fruit when ripe.
The recipe for banana chips is as simple to make, as it is to eat. Buy raw nendran plantain, peel it and slice the fruit into thin disks. Heat oil in an iron wok, drop the slices into the boiling oil, deep fry them and strain it out using a slotted spoon once they turn golden.
Memories of banana chips
Those were the days of pure happiness. The texture of the banana chips would be crisp and crunchy, and we would love to eat it fresh out of the oil.
It was the summer of 2009, and 12-year-old Abel Paul seized every opportunity that would take him back to his mum’s hometown in Kerala, India. It wasn’t just about meeting cousins and family members for him, because vacations also meant eating a lot of food and climbing trees to get the ripest mangoes. Paul was studying in Palakkad at the time, and his mum’s house was in a town called Pathanamthitta.
On arriving home, Paul would be surrounded by his grandparents, his cousins, and the rest of the family. While everyone caught up with another, Paul and his cousins would make their way to the kitchen where one of his uncles, would be frying the first fresh batch of upperi or banana chips. The children would then dig into it, finishing the first batch in a matter of seconds. After all, it is hard to resist.
“Those were the days of pure happiness. The texture of the banana chips would be crisp and crunchy, and we would love to eat it fresh out of the oil. Especially during Onam (Kerala’s harvest festival), we’d always fight for who gets the most banana chips. It’s been a few years since we all got together like that, especially since we’re all in different places, but this memory is what holds my love for banana chips,” said 26-year-old Abel Paul, a Gulf News reader who lives in Auroville, Pondicherry in India.
We used to have the freshly fried batch during tea time, and then my sister and I would help by storing it in air tight jars – sometimes we would even sneak up to the kitchen in the night and eat it
In the past, there used to be one family member who would perfect the art of slicing and frying banana chips – it would usually be the matriarchs of the house. However, over time, frying upperi has become more of a commercial activity in Kerala. For 41-year-old Dubai-based Indian expatriate, Saira Anish, banana chips symbolise the start of a long vacation. “I’ve grown up eating banana chips. I used to watch my grand mum and mum in the kitchen patiently slicing the plantain as the oil heated up. We used to have the freshly fried batch during tea time, and then my sister and I would help by storing it in air tight jars – sometimes we would even sneak up to the kitchen in the night and eat it. Even now, when I go back with my children for summer vacation, I can see the same curiosity I had in them. Frying banana chips has been a ‘tradition’ – if I can call it that – and we make sure we make a fresh batch every year.”
It used to be so quick, almost like an art form, and the aroma would just lure me in to try a fresh bite. I can still remember the aroma. A lot has changed over the years, but I love that this road still stays the same
For another 40-year-old Dubai-based Indian expatriate, Liju Cheruvathur, too, the snack takes him back to his childhood. “The best part about banana chips is that the aroma that comes from the snack is very unique. I am from Calicut, and there used to be a bookstore on Mavoor Road. I used to go there quite often to buy books as a child, and that street would have these vendors on both sides, peeling, slicing and frying the banana. It used to be so quick, almost like an art form, and the aroma would just lure me in to try a fresh bite. I can still remember the aroma. A lot has changed over the years, but I love that this road still stays the same.”
Today, this beloved snack is made both in salty and sweet forms, with the former version being preferred over the latter. Here's how you can make Kerala upperi or banana chips at home:
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Serves: 15 to 20 servings
6 to 8 plantains, unripe
Salt to taste
Coconut oil, for deep-frying
1. To peel the plantains, cut the top and bottom tips of the fruit first. Next, peel the skin. Also note, the brighter the colour of plantain peel, the crispier the chip.
2. Wash the plantain in water mixed with half a teaspoon of salt.
3. Cut the plaintain in half and start slicing it in thin disks. You can also use a mandoline slicer to speed up the process.
4. Pour oil in a deep skillet – about 2 inches deep – and add the sliced banana into it, once the oil is hot. Let it cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, stir continuously so that it is evenly cooked.
5. Before taking the fried chips out, add half a teaspoon of salt in oil and then transfer the chips onto a tray or bowl lined with paper towels to soak up any excess oil. Fry in batches.
6. Store in an airtight container. Serve when required. Enjoy!
Recipe courtesy: Santhamma John, Gulf News reader
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