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 and 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


Ramanujan - The Hindoo Calculator

High above, the plane had taken off from Vegas, rising over the arid Nevada deserts, headed for Raleigh, North Carolina. The desert was opening out with hues of red and brown, deep chasms or canyons splitting the empty terrain as though enormous forces had ripped the surface apart. My eyes were becoming heavy lidded, and I dozed off. 15 minutes later I was awake, the lady beside me was chatting with the aisle seat occupant. I looked at them in curiosity. A cultured black man, a Chinese girl and at the window seat the Indian me. For a moment, I curiously thought, would this be a first time? Who knows??? The Chinese girl was uncharacteristically talkative and asking various questions to the person beside me. Seeing me awake, she changed targets and took me on saying in heavily accented English, you missed the drink order…now don’t forget to ask for your snacks…wow! I thought what a forthright girl? Then she got on to the other person asking how the various words on the peanut and cracker packets were pronounced and the man was patiently explaining it all to her. She said groundnuts, the guy said, ‘in America we say peanuts’. She said biscuit and he corrected, no it is crackers…

I opened the book The Indian Clerk – By David Leavitt that I had picked up the other day from the library, as usual the name beckoned to me from the good reads section and I had grabbed it. Thus started a 7 hour non stop quest, at discovering another enigma from our part of the Eastern world, the great Srinivasa Ramanujan – called the Hindoo calculator. The book turned out to be a relatively heavy novel, if it can be called so, as it is more than just another biography of the person. It also covered the lives of many other luminaries around him during his 5 years in Cambridge - Trinity College in the UK. If I say that the book is written by an American who teaches in Florida, you would wonder a bit, especially when an American writes lucidly about the life in Cambridge between those 5 years, in language decidedly British English. I for one was awed. The book was a fascinating study of the genius of Ramanujan – whom the British press, called Hindoo calculator and his contemporaries GH Hardy, Littlewood, Lawrence, JM Keynes, GE Moore, Bertrand Russel called the greatest living mathematician.

The book was good and difficult in parts, but engaging. While I found the chapters of gay relationships of various dons at the college and some of the general outlook of certain characters tedious, I must admit that I would not have gleaned this much about Ramanujan had I not read the book. The characters are fascinating, so also the chapters detailing Ramanujan cooking rasam & Sambar in his college room and the lengths he goes to get the lentils, ghee and tamarind to get it right (no mention of Hing though!! Such details would certainly have escaped a writer from Florida who also makes mistakes like calling a rickshawallah Govindran). Most definitely, I would not have known of this genius’s failings, like taking a whole year to figure out that you get in between sheets to sleep tight in the West, rather than on it and don sweaters to keep out the cold. Alice Neville’s affection for him is semi fictional, but his family relations like his teen wife, his domineering mother and reluctant father are interestingly characterized.

While most people believe that Raman died of TB, it is alluded in the book that he died of lead poisoning from the lead lined brass bowl he had brought from India and its reaction with tamarind…But I have subsequently read that it could also have been hepatic amoebiosis, something that could have been cured…Anyway the young genius died at the age of 32, something that he always knew would happen and something, it appears, his mother blamed on the ‘tailored or fudged’ horoscope of the young Janaki he married as a child.

But Ramanujan is a fascinating person and for the uninitiated, this book takes you into the western study of an oriental. From my experience, most British academics are a bit leery of Indian academic credentials & originality in thought; but this book tells me that they had great respect for intellect and that there were many Indians studying in Cambridge those days. Leavitt the author has done extensive research and is himself a person who has a fair share of critics and support…I thought it exhausting prose, and as such this book is recommended for an academic, not a casual reader. His understanding of the Indian mind is a bit shallow, especially the thought processes and the inter dependences, connections etc with family and others. And, let me warn you there are decent doses of mathematics equations and so on…But I am thankful of course for laying my hands on this book, for now I know quite a lot about the great mathematician Ramanujan.

So who is Srinivasa Ramanujan?

The man who knew infinity, people may say!!

Born 1887, Erode in TN, he excelled only in mathematics during his school days, winning awards and scholarships. In 1912, he finally obtained employment at the Madras Port trust earning Rs 30/- per month!! It was in 1913, that he sent samples of his work for potential publication to GH Hardy, a renowned mathematician and Don at Cambridge. Initially leery of crossing the Kala pani, Ramanujan finally did it in 1914 and settled at Trinity College Cambridge to research math for a tumultuous period of just 4 years whence he produced work of such magnificence that he would certainly have been of Nobel Prize class. He was the first fellow of Indian origin in Cambridge and obtained his BA (later upgraded to PhD), FRS and what not during those few days. Unfortunately illness overtook him in 1917 and for two years, he suffered in various sanatoriums being treated for TB and cancer. It was during this period that he attempted suicide in London. One thing he and Hardy worked hard on but could not complete was the solution to the Reimman hypothesis,

Janaki Ammal, his wife since betrothal from age 9, and who never lived an adult life with him, save a few days, died in 1994 after accepting a final award from prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. She raised a neighbor’s son at Bombay, named W Narayanan, after Raman’s death. Those interested in knowing her life may refer this document.

It was early in 1911 that he went to the Indian mathematical society looking for a Job. Ramachandra Rao recounts - A short uncouth figure, stout, unshaven, not over clean, with one conspicuous feature-shining eyes - walked in with a frayed notebook under his arm. He was miserably poor. ... He opened his book and began to explain some of his discoveries. I saw quite at once that there was something out of the way; but my knowledge did not permit me to judge whether he talked sense or nonsense. ... I asked him what he wanted. He said he wanted a pittance to live on so that he might pursue his researches.

Godfrey Harold Hardy went on to claim that his greatest contribution to mathematics was discovering Ramanujan. G. H. Hardy's personal ratings of mathematicians state the following. Suppose that we rate mathematicians on the basis of pure talent on a scale from 0 to 100, Hardy gave himself a score of 25, J.E. Littlewood 30, David Hilbert 80 and Ramanujan 100.'"

Ramanujan died at Kumbhakonam in April 1920, one year after returning to India, and even three days before the event, he was busy scribbling in his note books – equations and theorems, with all the results but never as he was wont to do, the proof. Such was his genius that even today experts are studying his jottings for a better understanding of complex numbers. Picture this extract from Kanigels bio - Ramanujan used a slate for working out his mind-boggling results and began entering the concise results themselves in notebooks. These notebooks have nothing short of a cult status in mathematical circles. "When he thought hard, his face scrunched up, his eyes narrowed into a squint. When he figured something out, he sometimes seemed to talk to himself, smile, shake his head with pleasure. When he made a mistake, too impatient to lay down his slate-pencil, he twisted his forearm towards his body in a single fluid motion and used his elbow, now aimed at the slate, as an eraser..."

Ramanujan’s favorite vegetable was Lady’s finger…one that supposedly makes us brainy! One section of the book details Ramanujan cooking a dinner for his Indian friends. When his friend’s fiancée refuses a third helping of his handmade Rasam and rice, Ramu gets upset and walks away from the room, taking a trip to Oxford. He returns only after four days after he manages to get train fare from Hardy!! It was probably his Rasam cooking that popularized Mulligu Thanny or Mulalagtwany soup in UK…who knows?

‘The Indian clerk’ also details the efforts of a friend who’s ship was captured by the Germans and it is only months later that he reaches Britain. Ramanujan asks him, did you bring it? Yes, indeed, the Tamarind from India for his Rasam has arrived, safe…In 1917-18, however, he had no choice but to eat eggs on doctors advice, though just a year back he ran away from the hostel he was in when the landlady served him ‘Ovaltine’ where eggs are listed as one the constituents on the label…

For Ramanujan, Zero represented absolute reality!! He was also maddeningly stubborn and fatalistic. When on his deathbed, a doctor suggested he go to Tanjavur for further treatment, he refused, punning instead that – “He wants me to go to Than (My) – Savoor (City of Death).

The book is done and dusted, the plane has landed, now starts my working week in Raleigh….The Chinese lady whose feet were upon the seat dropped them down and rushed out…The black man rolled his eyes…I am back in the land of the living….

Think about this quote by Ramanujan - An equation means nothing to me unless it expresses a thought of God.

Those who would like to study the genius may refer to –

Ramanujan: Essays and Surveys - By Bruce C. Berndt, Robert Alexander Rankin
Collected Papers of Srinivasa Ramanujan, By Srinivasa Ramanujan
A Hindu article
Ramanujan Bio