By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cameos Of Coconut Drinks, Coconut Trees, And Kerala's Coconut Culture

After the midsummer memories of mangoes and monkeys (May 19), here come some more midsummer memories of coconuts and coconauts!! 

 Most of the culinary expressions explained below had figured in this column earlier --  Archives :  When French Cuisine Turned Totally Vegetarian! (10 Feb. 2013),  and the definitions are repeated here for ready reference. 

Glossary (In same order as in text)

 Coconut  --  A football-sized (or a little smaller) tropical fruit-like vegetable, growing in clusters on tall palm trees whose huge leaves resemble Venetian blinds.  A hard and hollow spherical kernel, covered by thick green husk, is lined inside with a layer of pure-white meat and contains a pale-gray translucent liquid.  The meat is quite thin and rather pulpy when the nut is very young, and grows much thicker and harder when the nut attains maturity on the tree.  So, tender coconuts are consumed as thirst-quenching drinks, usually at simple roadside stalls, and mature nuts are used for cooking.  Coconut oil is extracted by drying the fully-grown meat and crushing it well in a mill.

Chou En-lai  --  The first Premier of the People's Republic of China, who visited India in 1954 and 1960, pursuing the elusive goal of peaceful co-existence.

Madras  --  Earlier name of Chennai in South India, still very much in vogue, the two names peacefully co-existing in social  (though not legal) terms!

Kerala  --  A coastal state in South West India.

Avial  --  Salty mixture of small boiled pieces of several vegetables (such as pumpkins, potatoes, yams, carrots, green beans, etc.), generously laced with coconut oil.  A highlight of Kerala cuisine.

Olan  --  As defined in the old text below, boiled pumpkin slices served steaming hot, with a sprinkling of coconut oil.  Another speciality of Kerala! 

Pappadaams  --  Crisp wafer-thin discs of salty dried cereal-based dough, to be fried or toasted for eating  --  the Kerala brand of paappad, a generic North Indian expression I had explained in the preceding column (Midsummer Memories of Mangoes, etc., May 19).

Chutney  --  Hot green chillis and shredded coconut, ground together to form a thick, salty paste, standard accompaniment for idlis and several other light refreshments all over India. 

Idlis  --  Small white ultra-soft pancakes, cooked by steaming fermented yeasty batter made from rice and cereal powder  --  a marvel of South Indian cuisine! 

King Kong  --  Actually, the original black-and-white movie was made in 1933.  I have no idea why I thought it was 1940, which was the year in which, as a tiny tot, I saw it for the first and only time.

Cochin  --  Earlier name of Kochi, a major port and harbour in Kerala State, off the Arabian Sea.

Skol!  --  Norwegian expression meaning "Cheers!" in toasting contexts (also Swedish and  Danish).

Carlsberg, Tuborg  --  Well-known beer brands of Denmark.

Falken Lager  --  Actually a Swiss brand, though it sounds so Scandinavian when I tell this story!  


Evening News, New Delhi
6 July 1984


I HAD concluded  last Friday's Delhiberations with the refreshing movie recollction of Chou En-Lai's tasting tender-coconut water in the open air in India.

Soon after sending my copy to the Editor, I went to Madras for a couple of days;  and on the way I resolved to drink some fresh coconut water there, since one can hardly get any in the Capital these days.

But I had no time in Madras to stop anywhere and have a cool coconut drink.  On the way back to Delhi, I thought regretfully about the omission, and naturally some nostalgic memories of coconuts came flooding into my mind!

*               *               *

MY grandfather's house in a Kerala village --  I've just arrived on a brief visit.  A rustic coconut-feller is sent for early in the morning,  He climbs up a tall tree in the backyard and fells a few tender nuts.

He takes one and dexterously rips away part of the raw green husk on the shell.  He cuts open a large hole at the top, and I lift the nut above my face and, tilting my head backwards, drink up the delightful natural beverage. 

The nut-feller takes the shell back, neatly cleaves it into two halves with a heavy curved cast-iron knife, and hands them to me.  I scoop out the soft white meat inside the kernel and gorge myself greedily.

I ask for another nut, and the exercise is repeated.  And once more!

My grandfather advises me to have an oil-bath.  I soak my skin all over in coconut oil.  We send for a village masseur, and he gives me a vigorous rub-down.  I bathe in steaming hot water in the backyard.  A kind of sauna it is, and I feel ten years younger.

My grandmother prepares a delightful mid-day meal.  Among other things she makes avial (a mixed vegetable dish) and olan (boiled pumpkin slices served steaming hot).  She sprinkles generous quantities of coconut oil into the pots.

She fries pappadaams in coconut oil, and a delicate aroma fills the whole house.  And there's coconut chutney to go with idlis in the evening.  I go for a walk in the green fields, and note the cool shade provided by the dried coconut-leaf roofs on the farmers' huts. 

Down there in Kerala on the West Coast, it's coconut culture all the way!

*               *               *

I AM a schoolboy in a small port town called Cuddalore on the East Coast.  I specialize in climbing trees of all kinds.

But coconut trees somehow elude all my skills.  I go to the beach often and try to climb the shorter ones lining the sands, but can't make it.

I try to work up some inspiration by thinking of King Kong clambering up the Empire State Building in New York (1940 version, naturally).  But even that doesn't help.  Climbing the pillar-like palm trees calls for an intricate technique, and I give up the whole enterprise.

As a young college student I see a Hollywood film called Island In The Sun.  Harry Belafonte sings the title song, a delightful Calypso number.  Lolling about on the golden sands of a Caribbean beach, the dark hero wins the affections of snow-white Joan Fontaine.

But what captures my interest more than the lovely romance or the lilting music is the sight of the coconut trees swaying gently in the sea breeze against a deep-blue sky, with the sound track going 'swish, swish', which is another kind of music to my ears.

I see the movie once more, not for the romantic couple or the rhythmic Calypso, but for the sea and the sky and the rustling coconut leaves.

*               *               *

I AM spending a short holiday in Cochin, twenty years ago.  In a beer shop one evening I make friends with some jolly Norwegian sailors.

I invite them to a coconut party next day, and under the hot afternoon sun we trek on sandy tracks to a coconut grove.  We cut open dozens of tender green coconuts and gulp down the divine liquid.

The seamen keep saying Skol! as they drink and drink, and they declare it's a wonderful treat, something they will never forget.  Later on in the evening, they drag me into their ship anchored in the harbour, and we follow up with liberal doses of Carlsberg, Tuborg and Falken Lager.

Perhaps by now my Nordic friends would have forgotten many of their on-shore adventures all over the world.  But I like to imagine that they still remember, as I do, their coconautic fling in Cochin port!

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