Ignatius Pereira follows the distinct smell of coconut oil and discovers the best banana chips.

When deep-fried to the right texture and served on a plate, this nice and crispy snack resembles a heap of gold coins unearthed from some treasure trove. The flavour is so tempting that it is hard to stop eating it making one wonder whether it conceals some addictive attraction.

Some say even a surfeit of this snack will not cloy the palate. Locally called “upperi”, but better known as banana chips, it is an ethnic Kerala snack heartily savoured by practically everyone. Though who invented it and when did it make its debut as a food item in Kerala remain a mystery, the chips have been providing a crunchy punch to all formal Kerala meals, including the celebrated Onam lunch.

Banana chips are available in all convenience stores and supermarkets in Kerala. These made-in-Kerala chips are available all over the country now, and are slowly becoming a gourmet’s choice even abroad. It’s because chips are also a healthy and delicious way to enjoy a banana.

Banana chips are made from the nendran variety. The plantain variety can be cooked and eaten when raw and enjoyed as a fruit when ripe. But creating the perfect banana chips is a culinary art mastered after a lot of trial and error by working on a recipe which is known to almost everyone in Kerala.

The recipe is simple. Get raw nendran, peel and slice the fruit into thin rounds, heat oil in an iron wok, drop the slices into the boiling oil to deep fry them, remove when they turn golden.

In the past every house had an ace banana chip chef and usually it was the grandmother. Those matriarchs had the interest, time and patience for it. These days making banana chips is a major small scale industrial activity in Kerala.

One such acclaimed production unit is the Calicut Halwa and Bakery on Jew Street at Market Junction in Kochi. For more than 40 years this bakery has been catering to the growing demand for banana chips from a crush of cosmopolitan customers.

Forty-three-year-old Dasappan has 30 years experience behind the art of transforming plain nendran to gourmet choice chips. It is a feast for the eyes, watching the process of Dasappan using boiling coconut oil as a medium to change the cherry blossom pink of raw nendran into the crispy crunchy “upperi”. Being traditional Kerala products, coconut oil and nendran slices are the best combination to create the traditional banana chips, says Dasappan.

But the traditional aspect involves a couple of other important factors too. There are many nendran varieties and the top grade in demand for any nendran product and even the ripe fruit is the Changanassery variety. Changanassery is a township in erstwhile central Travancore famous for its fertile farm tracts. But now the variety is largely imported from Tamil Nadu.

Dasappan says that if the right grade is bought, the slices spontaneously turn golden yellow when deep fried. Otherwise the golden colour is ensured artificially.

Dasappan uses a custom-made slicer. He holds about nine peeled bananas and the slicer above the huge iron wok containing about 40 litres of boiling coconut oil and gets into action. The slices keep falling into the bubbling oil with a hiss. Depending upon the flame it takes about 12 to 15 minutes for the raw banana slices to turn into banana chips of the desired quality.  

Apart from the colour, it is the aroma which tells the chef that it’s time to remove the chips from the oil. Each frying session calls for about nine kg sliced banana and it produces about 3.5 kg of banana chips. Abdul Latif, owner of the bakery, said that selecting the raw bananas involves skill acquired by experience and that came to him from his father Kunju Ahamed Koya who started the bakery.

The sale target for each working day is about 60 kg of banana chips. Today’s product is not sold tomorrow and the crowd of customers ensure it, Latif said. Close to 100 kg raw bananas are needed to make 32 kg chips, and Latif’s bakery fries 200 kg of nendran each day to meet their standard customer demand.

In addition to being a major food item in Kerala, banana chips provide jobs for thousands of persons. The other value-added nendran products include jaggery-coated banana chips, banana fritters and even dried ripe nendran pickled in honey.