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Hopa bananas grow on plant stalks that may contain up to 30 bananas, or over a dozen “hands”. They have an elongated, rounded shape with little to no ridges running along their length. The ends are slightly squared and have a blunt tip. The medium-thin skin matures from a light green to yellow color with dark spots appearing to indicate overripe fruit. Green, immature Hopa bananas have a starchy texture with a mild flavor. As they mature, the starchiness will diminish, and the sugars will develop. Mature Hopa bananas have a sweet flavor with a creamy consistency.
Hopa bananas are available year-round in the South Pacific.
Hopa bananas are a cooking variety of banana that can also be eaten raw when ripe. They are classified as Musa acuminata × balbisiana and belong to the Maoli-Popo’ulu subgroup, often referred to as the “Pacific plantains”. The term ‘hopa’ in Tonga refers to bananas with the characteristics of two different subgroups. The natural hybrids have the longer length of a Maoli type and the rounded, blunt end of a Popo’ulu type. They are also known as Hopa Tonga and are rarely found outside of the South Pacific region.
Hopa bananas are a good source of complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber. They also contain high amounts of potassium, vitamin C, vitamin A, magnesium, and vitamin B6 (pyriodoxine). Hopa bananas also provide small amounts of iron, folate, and vitamin K.
Hopa bananas are most often used when just ripe and still green. They are boiled or baked with the skin on or off, eaten whole, sliced or mashed. Raw bananas can be peeled and sliced into rounds, then fried. The starchy, green bananas serve as a substitute for potatoes or other root vegetables. They are often served as an accompaniment to fish, in soups or curry dishes, and pair well with coconut cream, chile peppers, citrus, taro or cassava, poultry and fresh herbs and spices like coriander, pele (Togan spinach) and turmeric. Ripe, yellow Hopa bananas can be eaten raw or used for banana bread, desserts or other baked goods. Store green Hopa bananas at room temperature and use within a few days if preparing while still green. Ripen for up to a week at room temperature for raw consumption.
In Tonga, green Hopa bananas are a traditional component to any fish dish. They are usually served alongside grilled mackerel or flank fish and boiled cassava root in a coconut cream and chile pepper broth. In Tahiti, overly ripe Hopa bananas are made into po’e, a type of sweetened, thickened banana pudding made with arrowroot starch and covered in a coconut cream. Traditionally, the pudding was wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an earthen oven, or umu. In the island nations in the South Pacific, green cooking bananas are a valuable source of carbohydrates and serve as a substitute for potatoes and other grains.
Hopa bananas are native to the Polynesian island of Tonga. From there, they spread to other islands including American Samoa, Tahiti (French Polynesia), the Cook Islands, and Fiji. Tongans who moved to Hawaii brought Hopa bananas with them and they can be found growing in limited quantities on several of the islands. Hopa bananas are part of the AAB genetic group of fruits and include over 15 different named varieties on the island of Tonga. Varieties include the cultivated Hopa kula, and Puko hina, as well as the wild Putalinga hina, Mami kula, Hopa fie siaine, and Putalinga Nonou. Researchers believe that Maoli-Popo’ulu type bananas were originally domesticated in the Bismark and Solomon Islands just east of Papua New Guinea.