How Banana Flour Became My New Favorite Gluten-Free Alternative
Don't knock it 'til you've tried it.
There was a day recently where I suddenly feared that I'd have to go the rest of my life without eating chicken and dumplings ever again, and my entire being slumped forward and cried. We've all got those foods; maybe yours is your grandmother's ackee and saltfish, or the meat lasagna from the red sauce joint around the corner where you grew up, or a bowl of tonkotsu ramen from the shop that sustained you when you lived away from home for the first time. They're the dishes that feed the parts of you that, say, an energy bar or a bowl of oatmeal never could.
I didn't grow up eating chicken and dumplings, but I came to treasure it as my husband and I were planning our wedding, and decided to have the caterer recreate a few of the dishes we loved from our childhoods. His dearly-departed Memama's long-stewed chicken and flat-rolled, silken dumplings proved to be something I could never reproduce exactly, but I found my groove with a recipe from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook and made it whenever we had the time and needed some uncomplicated comfort. Their chicken and sweet potato-orange dumplings is hefty, soothing, and simple but nuanced, with notes of orange zest and a palpable zing of black pepper. It's a luxurious nap of a dish, one from which I was rudely awakened when I was diagnosed with a gut condition that doesn't play with with wheat flour or grains.
I was deeply upset for plenty of reasons, and once I stopped feeling abjectly sorry for myself, I channeled a solid helping of that frustration into figuring out how to keep from leading a dumpling-free life. I'd started using arrowroot and tapioca to thicken gravies and sauces, where I'd deployed flour before, but they seemed a little bit too gummy to use in rolled dumplings, where I was looking for a texture that was sleek and pliable. Almond flour—a favorite of mine in crusts and crackers, or wherever a little crunch is desired—brought a little bit too much personality to the table. Chickpeas and potatoes and their respective flours are currently off the menu because of how they react with my gut bacteria.
Then suddenly it slipped into my mind: I reached into the back of the cabinet and grabbed the banana flour that had been hanging out, ignored and unopened, for months. It had showed up on my desk at work at some point and I'd been intrigued enough to haul it home. Might as well see what it could do. But first of all—what is it?
Banana flour is pretty much just what it sounds like: starchy, less-sweet green bananas that have been milled down into powder. It's used in Jamaica and parts of Africa in much the same way that North America and Europe use wheat flour—you cook what's plentiful around you—and seeing as I was playing fast and loose with Memama's legacy as it was, I figured I'd give it a try, swapping in the banana flour in equal measure for the white. And darned if it didn't work.
The dumplings weren't quite as smooth and slippery as before, rather a bit more rough-hewn, and definitely darker. But after a swim in the rich, bubbling chicken broth, and melding with the tender meat, the minor differences were drowned out by my joy at having this treasured recipe back in rotation. Subsequent experiments with quick breads and sweet-skewing recipes have worked out quite satisfactorily, I'm pleased to say, and if I can master a banana flour-based roux, you'll be the first to know. I'm well aware that it would just be hubris to attempt biscuits, yeast breads, or anything that's enjoyment is tethered to leavening, but for a bunch of recipes that are close to my heart, banana flour certainly rises to the occasion.