There is an apocryphal story, recounted by Tamil writer Jeyamohan, about the Matti banana variety, native to Kanniyakumari district, which was recently granted the Geographical Indication (GI) tag. According to this story, when it was brought to the attention of King of Travancore Chithirai Thirunal Balarama Varma that some farmers were selling Matti banana saplings to farmers in Tamil country, he reportedly responded, “They can sell the saplings, but not the essence of the Aani and Aadi Saral seasons. The plants will only thrive in the unique climate and soil of Kanniyakumari district.” Kanniyakumari was then part of Travancore.
These specific conditions provide an ideal ground for the Matti banana, slightly larger than human fingers, to flourish in Kanniyakumari. Efforts to cultivate this variety in other regions failed. Even if it takes root and yields in other areas, the fruit will be without the sweet fragrance and honey-like taste unique to the Matti bananas grown in Kanniyakumari.
Placing a bunch of Matti bananas in a room will release its distinct unmistakable fragrance, and local marriages are incomplete without this banana variety, mixed with payasam, served in the feast, though the recently emerging Kathali variety seeks recognition as well.
J. Lohidas, Associate Professor of Botany at Scott Christian College, Nagercoil, who researched the banana varieties of the district for his doctoral thesis, elaborates on six known types of the Matti bananas. “Nal Matti boasts a yellowish-orange colour and fine aroma, while Theyn [honey] Matti’s pulp tastes like honey. Kal Matti gets its name from the calcium oxalate crystals forming in its pulp and black dots on the skin. Nei Matti exudes the aroma of ghee, and Sundari Matti, a Matti clone, with its elongated fingers, thick peel, and creamy white rind, is facing extinction,” he said.
A fusion of Matti and Red
Semmati (red) is a fusion of Matti and Red banana, with a mix of red and yellow pulp containing ascorbic acid beneficial to the growth of children. “It is also called Sanna Kathalai and the sugar level is very low and suitable even for diabetics,” Mr. Lohidas said. All these varieties are indigenous to Kanniyakumari. In 1965, Jacob Kurien, a researcher from Kerala, had recorded 165 varieties of banana in Travancore in a study that covered the areas from Kanniyakumari to Kollam. But the Matti’s place is unparalleled and even farmers in neighbouring districts struggle to successfully cultivate it in their turf.
The GI tag was secured through the endeavours of the Kanniyakumari Banana and Horticulture Farmers Producer Company Limited. The process was facilitated by the Tamil Nadu State Agriculture Marketing Board and NABARD Madurai Agribusiness Incubation.
Commonly known as ‘Baby Banana’ owing its nipple-like appearance, it flourishes mainly in Kalkulam and Vilavancode taluks. Unlike typical banana bunches that grow straight, the Matti’s fingers exhibit a distinct wind-blown appearance. Its low total soluble solids content (TSSC) recommends it as a baby food.
R. Selvarajan, Director of the National Research Centre for Banana in Tiruchi, likened the Matti’s uniqueness to Basmati rice and Karuvalai or Manoranjitham banana, which upon ripening emits a scent similar to the Manoranjitham flower. The Manoranjitham banana, once widespread in Kulithalai, lost its fragrance when grown elsewhere. Mr. Selvarajan said various factors, including humidity, water, temperature, soil composition and nutrient balance, contribute to unique flavours. “The hill banana of Thadiyan Kudisai thrives elsewhere and yields even bigger bunches but loses its original flavour. Another example is the Kichili Samba paddy of Aathur. When cultivated in other regions, it failed to retain its fragrance. What is crucial is a combination of factors throughout the growth, not just limited exposure. These factors are challenging to replicate artificially,” he said.
While many varieties of banana became extinct, the Matti’s genetic traits have sustained it through the centuries, Mr. Selvarajan said. The GI tag has suddenly increased its popularity and the price of the fruits has gone up substantially since then, it is being said. While the GI tag is rooted in geography, the chemical and biological factors also play a role, contributing to the Matti’s distinctiveness. The potential role of the associated soil and the plant microbiome in modulating the Matti banana gene (or genome expression), leading to its unique aroma and the (bio)chemical composition of volatile fragrance, remains an emerging subject.
A. Kumar, Principal Scientist at the ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, points to the significance of Genotype-Environment-Microbiome interaction (G×ExM) for gene expression, highlighting the importance of geo-environmental support for genetic traits. “A comprehensive study of the ‘cause-and-effect relationship’ contributing to the Matti’s unique characteristics is necessary...,” said Mr. Kumar, a native of Kanniyakumari. He said that if a single factor was responsible for Matti’s unique taste and aroma, farmers in other areas can easily create it in their areas. “It is a combination of factors that make Matti banana stand apart,” he said.