Malayali’s best friend – The Coconut

What can a Malayali do without a Coconut? After all, it is the ‘Kera Vriksha’ of Kerala and some attribute the states name itself to the tree, but probably it is the other way round. Sept 2nd is world coconut day, did you all know that? And Tom Hanks made the nut popular all over again with his movie ‘Castaway’. ‘A coconut a day keeps the guy alive’ was what he proved.

I certainly cannot manage without coconuts. So I have been skirting places like Florida and California where fresh coconuts are available in plenty (well that was not THE reason of course, but very convenient for this argument). It was terrible while in Turkey when we had to buy a few coconuts, transport the grated stuff across many countries in a plastic cover with due care and haste and promptly freeze them. The gratings were used sparingly until the next vacation trip.

So what would a Malayali use it for? Chutney, Sambar, Curries and of course the ever famous Avial and Thoran. They all need varying amounts of coconut to be ground with the spices for that very special Kerala taste. Some put a few drops of coconut oil for flavor in the ‘ishtu’ or other curries. Some are more liberal adding large dollops of it. Unlike most reports, Malayali’s do not always apply coconut oil before take a bath (even women). After ‘Parachute’ started selling the oil in those characteristic blue plastic bottles (you can find it even in, it has been no problem getting a small medium or large sized bottle of this light oil in most places.

Coconut milk from Thailand can now be found in most supermarkets – so making the ‘ishtu’ is no ‘proeblem’. Toddy from Sri Lanka can be found in cans. Fresh tender coconuts – I really had a good chuckle while watching ‘Dasavatharam’ when Kamal’s ‘Telugu cop’ character says – ‘treat the foreigner like one, they like that. Give him a tender coconut with a straw and garland him with flowers. Keep them occupied & happy’ or some words to that effect. But nothing to beat that sweet ‘karikku’ from Kerala, you will never enjoy the same taste anywhere, even though you can get cans of it in Thai stores.

Mats, furniture, ropes, fencing, roofing come from the tree and can be found here and there. Table mats are more common place, especially Pier1 imports, but the full length sleeping mats of Kerala are no longer to be found. In Bombay, I still remember that Malayali’s were called Nariyal wallah’s or Chatayi wallas. Now what is Chattayi? The sleeping mat or ‘pullupaya’ – grass mat which Mallu’s stranded in Bombay peddled, in early days. I understood from A Tharakan’s blog that they were also called Methapayas (Muslim mats). Later I came across the same mention by Ammini Ramachandran – the fine writer on Malabar spices & cooking.

During our stay in USA, I discovered that there were many varieties of coconuts available in shops. The white shelled ones, the brown shelled ones or the dark brown shelled ones from India or Thailand. The darker the shell, the sweeter and softer the kernel– is the conclusion we have reached. Anyway the sad thing is that coconut buying has only a 50% success rate. One out of two taste rancid or have spoiled even if they shake (listen to the water gurgle – right volume and right sound mean good coconut), sound (knock on the shell with your knuckle) and smell (smell around the eyes – if it smells foul put it right back on the tray) right. Only people from Kerala do these things, and I have found many people giving us funny looks in US markets when we do the above three actions in succession before buying a coconut. But as I said, even with all that, the success percentage is not rising. I do not know why.

I used to wonder how the ‘goras’ and latino’s of America crack open coconuts. The other day we were waiting to check out our stuff at the supermarket and I heard the teller explain to a purchaser that one has to use a screw driver & hammer carefully to open one. (Some coconuts are the easy open type – they have a ground line through the equator – what people actually do I am not sure, probably they use a saw on the line). The mirth was building up in my chest and throat as I heard all this and we beat a hasty retreat out of the place to guffaw in private within the confines of the car.

Look at the instructions provided by Rachel Rappaport – in her blogsite on the coconut opening method practiced in USA. If you still have some more time, read this blog Steamy Kitchen even has superb pictures. For the person who has ample time, check out this Youtube category – you will find umpteen ways of doing it and you wonder…man, are these clever or what?

In India we use a big heavy cleaver or ‘vettukathi’and strike it cleanly & sharply at the equator, once, twice till it splits into two and then use a grater or scraper to get the kernel out as shavings. I cannot think of a single woman of my generation who cannot do this. And I remembered that fine scraper pictured by Abraham Tharakan in his blog. We used simpler varieties. I recall the version that came on the side of the first electric grinder. Man, that spun like mad and it required some skill to hold the coconut half in place. But the scraping work was done in a jiffy. Today, we do not do all that. My wife cuts out bits of fresh coconut till it is all taken out and freezes them. We then take handfuls and grind them when required.

And it was while thinking about the ambience of Kerala that I remembered ‘Mammad koya’ the dehusker who would come after all the coconuts were felled from trees and that nice huge pile was left by the contractors for the home use, when we lived in Calicut. He would come with his steel post/spike that was flat and sharp like a spear on top. He would plant the spike on the ground and proceed to take off the husk by striking the fruit on the spear and twisting away. Typically a coconut would be dehusked in about a minute. I would sit near him and watch, chewing on a bit of the sweet and splendid tasting coconut as Koya kept talking about this and that and the vagaries of life. Doing it with a Vettukathi or cleaver would take more effort and time as you would never get the leverage as with the dehusking post. Nowadays there are dehusking machines and of course there are even crazy people who do it with their teeth (saw some on youtube).

I am convinced that the palm oil lobby in Kerala killed the coconut oil industry. It is slowly making a come back, but I hope the coconut trees would not be gone before the business becomes profitable. This well researched article explains the debacle of the coconut industry and the actions of the ‘Bombay’ palm oil lobby and the governments involved. The recent Hindu article concurs.

Is coconut oil good for health? I know many people will argue vehemently with me (except my brother and mother in law since their very standard of living depends on the price of the coconut) on this, but today it is a weight reducing option and a regime to attack thyroid problems.

A 1995 study proved that it was not a reason for cardiovascular problems - A study was conducted on 64 volunteers and the findings were statistically significant alteration in the serum total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol/total cholesterol ratio and LDL cholesterol/HDL cholesterol ratio of triglycerides from the baseline values... A beneficial effect of adding the coconut kernel to the diet was noted by these researchers. The whole story of how it got the bad image and what the actual tests and results were are provided in the same paper linked above and researched by Dr Mary Enig, an expert of international renown in the field of lipid biochemistry.

Brian Shilhavy concurs – So why has coconut oil gotten such a bad rap in the recent past? The answer is politics and economics. Coconut oil was heavily used in the U.S. at one time, being used for baking, pastries, frying, and theater popcorn. But starting in the 1980s, some very powerful groups in the U.S. including the American Soybean Association (ASA), the Corn Products Company (CPC International), and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) began to categorically condemn all saturated oils.

Or if you have all the time in the world – read this book Coconut Oil: For Health and Beauty By Cynthia Holzapfel, Laura Holzapfel

A very nice blog by Raji on Coconut tree climbing

Of all the coconut links, here are some funny ones

- It can even be used to rob a bank – see this funny report from Italy.

- It is used to fly planes; A Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet flew from London to Amsterdam with one of its fuel tanks filled with a bio-jet blend including babassu oil and coconut oil. A Virgin Atlantic statement said the bio-fuel mix provided 25 per cent of the fuel for the test flight.

- Some bright guys offer a tour to show dehusking of coconuts amongst other events; the tour is called the Ayurveda tour!!

- It is used to remove tarnish from brasswork!

- Good for getting rid of head lice

- Popular Hawaiian bra

- Coconut vinegar – well I think it is actually old toddy.

Pulpaya photo courtesy Santosh, others from the web - Thanks



Cook without coconut? Impossible!

And nowadays naturopaths are recommending coconut and coconut oil as part of a wholesome diet.

The coconut also has this special place in our religious rites and ceremonies, as a symbol of 'aiswaryam' - ('prosperity' comes closest in meaning, but not entirely)

Maddy, have a good trip home and have a peaceful vacation. If you come to our part of the country, let me know.
P. S. Thanks for mentioning my post. :)
shyama said…
I, for one, grew up in a home where daily cooking and fried savories were done in coconut oil, be it chips like nethrangai, vazhakkai, chenai or the numerous crunchy afternoon treats like pakkavada, thengkuzhal, etc. or tiffin snacks like vadai, bajjis, bonda, pakoda and so on. I remember when the rumblings of "rapeseed' oils and "radio oil" where heard and my father remained passionate about his Palakkad beliefs, which I now find were based on naturopathy and local wisdom. Elam-neer, tender coconut waterfor example is a panacea for so many things. My father made ounces of coconut oil at home as moisturizer/healer for his tired aging eyes. However, somewhere down the years the "lowly" peanut oil entered the house during Deepavali time for bakshanams - I think the price of coconut oil was a factor. Of course, ghee remained medium for anything sweet, never giving in to vanaspati "ghee". An exception and sad instance was when towards the end, my father ate some poories made in vanaspati and promptly succumbed in the hospital where he was taken to.
"Approximately 50% of the fatty acids in coconut fat are lauric acid. Lauric acid is a medium chain fatty acid, which has the additional beneficial function of being formed into monolaurin in the human or animal body. Monolaurin is the anti-viral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride used by the human or animal to destroy lipid coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus, influenza, various pathogenic bacteria including listeria monocytogenes and heliobacter pylori, and protozoa such as giardia lamblia. Some studies have also shown some antimicrobial effects of the free lauric acid."

As a "functional food," coconut oil is now being recognized by the medical community as a powerful tool against immune diseases. Several studies have been done on its effectiveness, and much research is currently being done on the incredible nutritional value of pure coconut oil. Please go to to read about these studies.
izmir evden eve said…
thank you for sharing
Pradeep said…
Hi Maddy,

You must be enjoying your vacation in Kerala... Hope you are doing fine... I am back on the blogosphere; and with a new blog. Please visit it and also update your blogroll.

In London once I found ready to eat packaged coconut chutney with and without masala. They were pretty good. A Stockholm supermarket which I picked at random had eight different edible coconut products!

I believe that coconut oil has Omega - 3 factor which is good for health.
kallu said…
Coconuts open up us nuts..just kidding..everyone seems to have a lot to say on the coconut - something we take for granted (like our spouses:-) till they become difficult to access.
Maddy have a great holiday
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Nice post.nanmakalnerunnu.veendum varam.
Happy Kitten said…
And the love for coconut and its products got me into trouble this time at the Cochin Airport!
Büşra said…
thanks for sharing..
Maddy said…
Thanks raji..i did have a nice time will stop at Chennai..

thanks Shyama - for all the great inputs...makes this complete..

kallu, HK and Kalyani - thanks, HK you must tell us the story..
Happy Kitten said…
Maddy: It would be a very silly story.. Even though Hubby was dead against it, me and MIL conspired to stash in a few coconuts and oil(imagine!) and poor Hubby was left to make all the running around since they asked us to check the bag in..

guess Hubby will take the role of the security officer more seriously next time..
ALEX said…
Hi Maddy
Came upon this by chance but was amazed by the effort you have put into our dear thenga!Also by the link you had provided with re to the ''connection'' b/w coconut oil consumption and heart problems.Remember the days when I was a junior doctor in Kerala when 2 prominent cardiologists came out in support of palm oil and coconut oil respectively.
I guess the answer is- that no one knows for sure.There is no strong causal association evidence for coconut oil but that does not necessarily mean it's safer!And again unless there are bigger studies where 2 cohorts on coconut oil vs some other oil are followed up for years [and assuming other risk factors are more or less the same in both groups],you will not get the answer.
Maddy said…
HK - takes me back to the days when we took coconuts to turkey - but i wonder why you took it to kuwait, was it the 'attiya' velichenna?

thanks a lot alex - let us enjoy the little coconut oil permitted by the spouses - i keep telling her that eggs & Coconut oil are ok...
Happy Kitten said…
Ahh Maddy.. the typical question from a man!

Even Hubby has the same question... why do you take these things to Kuwait.. you can use it only for a month or so and then one needs to buy it from the local market.. (in Kuwait we also get freshly scraped coconut)

I guess I will not understand his logic while he will not understand mine!
Jennifer said…
Thank you for reminding me of this post, Maddy. I had seen it earlier and did not comment then.

Talking about Americans not testing the coconuts in the store, one day I was shopping in a large grocery's produce section. A family of mother and two kids age 6,10 were shopping there. The six year old picked up a coconut (the Indian kind) and said, "This is weird, what do people do with these things?"

I secretly laughed to myself.