Prophets of the Palms

Ratna Raman Delhi

Prophets are mostly tuned in to their environment. The Buddha  attained salvation under a  shady Bodhi tree and generations after, loyal monks carried replicas of the Bodhi tree in pots, venerating it as the tree of salvation. Arguably, the art of bonsai growing was an offshoot of such extensively cultivated devotion. Yet, once in a while, leaders of the life spiritual do direct their deep disapproval at specific trees.

There is a species of fig that Christ supposedly cursed with centuries of sterility because, when he rested under it and sought fruit, the unfortunate tree had none to offer.  Closer home, Kabir’s doha on the date palm is disturbingly dismissive:

Bada hua to kya hua jaise ped khajoor

Panthi ko chaya nahi, phal lage ati duur. (It is useless to come of age if your attributes are like those of the full grown date palm which despite its height, provides no shade to the wayfarer and has inaccessible fruit.)

This diatribe on the khajoor while damning the hapless tree is intended to propel self-centred humans towards larger social concerns. Yet, to make an example of either the ficus tree or the date palm can only be a logical fallacy. The ficus provides food across species in season. The date palm uses resources very sparingly and the nutrition-packed date fruit has been sustaining desert civilisations since time immemorial.

Since the finest and juiciest dates in the world grow in the Middle East, and often on dwarf trees, Kabir’s homily was possibly directed at the Indian date palm which bears rather ordinary fruit in comparison to its more exotic, succulent cousins of Central Asia and the Middle East.

Kabir’s pithy homily notwithstanding, Indians use the date in a variety of ways. The dried date fruit (chuaara) is used to flavour hot milk on cold winter evenings. Hot milk with dates and chopped nuts forms the proverbial sone pe suhaga at traditional weddings in North India. Dates are used in chutneys, pickles, pancakes, holiges, Indian breads and cakes. The most delicious product India crafts out of dates iskhajoori gur and West Bengal is the primary melting pot for its production.

Called date jaggery in English, khajoori gur (khejur-er gur in Bengali) tastes fabulous both as a standalone food and in a variety of milk combinations such as sandesh, payash and nutan gur laddoos. In Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park market, thisjaggerycan be found a little after Diwali and until the arrival of spring. This limited supply disappears off the shelves much in the manner of contraband.

The coconut and the palmfruit (nongu), other exotic fruit of the palm, find little mention possibly because Kabir never set eyes on these variations of the palm which inhabit the coastal regions of South India.   Both varieties have never had any roots in Uttar Pradesh in the Hindi heartland, which marked the ambit of Kabir’s journeys. The palmfruit is a refreshing fruit and is eaten along the coastal cities of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra, but the palm par exemplum is the coconut, without doubt the most significant green on the planet.

We could claim the coconut as one of our very own considering the extensive use of every part of this palm: fruit, husk, shell, leaves and trunk by people in India. Truth be told, the coconut palm is the eternal voyager among the botanical species. It has been navigating the seas from coast to coast and setting roots in salubrious sandy soil.

Coconut palms probably grew first along the Malay coast before they plunged into lives of adventure all along the Indian and Pacific Ocean. An extraordinary natural programming allowed the coconut to seek out areas of high humidity and temperatures that ranged between 20-26 degrees celsius. Fairly eclectic and easy going, the coconut palm lives in places of its own choosing although its fruit has played a formidable role in the history of civilisation.

Human desire to drink coconut water and eat succulent coconut pulp   was the catalytic factor that propelled us out of the stone age into the inventive age of iron, thereby furthering the progress of the human race. Only when stone age man forged implements of iron could he approximate to the conquest of the coconut. Only then did the spherical world symbolised by the coconut move closer to his grasp.

We learnt about elaneer or tender coconut water, when we travelled from the northern plains to parts of South India. Heaps of tender green coconuts stockpiled under shady trees were a common sight along innumerable city and town roads. We would stop, hot and thirsty, beside a mound of green coconuts and order elaneer. The man serving coconuts lopped off the top, creating an aperture with his scythe. A straw was popped in and a freshly unpackaged deliciously cool beverage was handed over.

Once in a while the green coconut would also have coconut flesh. The scythe would then slash out spatula- like wedges from the green shell which were very efficient in scraping out the soft quivering coconut meat. The wedges did double duty as spoons while we greedily savoured the delicious quivering white cream, yet to solidify into ceremonial whiteness.

The climbers of coconut trees who paid house calls in Kerala and Tamil Nadu were the most constant heroes in our growing years. Nothing matched the agility and skill of these men who dextrously climbed up tall trees and harvested both ripe and green coconuts for our consumption. They also knifed down large dried fronds used to thatch roofs and serve as kitchen fire fuel. These were the monarchs who rode high on swaying coconut palms with a purposeful ease that diminished considerably the aura of street acrobats who balanced mid-air on ropes.

Wayside stacks of green coconut which could be deeply drunk of, was once an experience confined entirely to the coastal regions of India.  Green coconuts arrived at New Delhi’s roadside stalls as late as the early 1990s. Looking at the abundance of green coconuts in New Delhi now, it  seems hard to believe that this fruit did not always dot our cartscapes.

Ripe coconuts could be bought in the 1970s only from the various outlets of Madras Stores, vegetable sellers who stocked the occasional coconut, and counters selling votive offerings at all the South Indian temples from Irwin Road to Vasant Vihar in Delhi. Each summer, when we returned to New Delhi, we carried a carton of coconuts in their brown shells and used them jealously, till we ran out of supplies and had to rush to the local Madras Stores to replenish supplies.

So what exactly did everyone in the north do in the days when fresh ripe coconuts were a rarity, but dried whole coconut shells (copra) were abundantly stocked? Khoya (thickened blocks of milk), North India’s primary sweet-making ingredient, was banned in the summer. Halwais (sweet sellers) all over Delhi traumatised eaters of fresh coconut with  sickeningly sweet coloured barfis made of desiccated coconut flakes in place of regular milk barfis and kalakand

Barfis with fresh grated coconut were delicious. Chutneys were eaten with rice, dosas and idlis. Fresh grated coconut was used to garnish vegetables and dals and make delicious curries for fish and meat 

At home, we ate coconut in various forms and made a whole lot of foods with it. Barfis with fresh grated coconut were delicious. Chutneys were eaten with rice, dosas and idlis. Fresh grated coconut was used to garnish vegetables and dals and make delicious curries for fish and meat. Coconut milk, freshly extracted by grinding ripe coconuts, was the secret ingredient added to payasam made with jackfruit, lentils and rice pasta. Until recently, established cooks ensured that this was a closely guarded secret.

The leaves and stem of the palm are used to make innumerable objects of domestic, nautical and commercial use to man. The coconut fruit was available to humans as life-giving water, crisp bits of fruit and a whole range of sweet and savoury foods. The dried kernel yielded oil and the remainder made useful animal feed. The shells were used to make all manner of containers and artefacts, even rattles. The husks lent themselves to the making of coir mats, ropes and mattresses.

In India, coconut is an important officiating member at ceremonies and rituals. It is an auspicious fruit, symbolising fertility, prosperity and abundance. Whole coconuts offered to the gods are cracked open by priests or smashed into bits in open temple courtyards by fervent devotees.

Master craftspersons fashion the coconut in silver and adorn it with golden foil and shiny baubles. In Bengal and Orissa, patachitra painters transform little green coconuts into ritual artwork.  Yet, the best thanks given for this bounty from nature must be credited to the inventers of the kozhakatta or modak.

This remarkable cooked votive offering approximates the form of the coconut. Spherical in shape, the white outer covering is made of rice paste with a pointed top. This delicate shell is stuffed with a dark brown filling of grated coconut and jaggery. This steamed delicacy which possibly originated in South East Asia is now part of the Indian culinary ethos and variations of it can be found along the southern coastal states and in parts of Bengal and Maharashtra, evoking ancient memories of fecund earth. Its flavours and textures bring on a languorous contentment. The making and eating of kozakatta is a much sought-after occasion.

 

In the Occident, the coconut features in macaroons and chocolates in real life and minimally in fictional narratives. Fairs in Victorian England were seldom complete without coconut shies. Coconuts that could be dislodged from their stands by small wooden balls were taken home as prizes. In DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Walter Morel brings home a coconut from the fair for his children. The protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s  Orlando taps at a moor’s head swinging from the rafters. The hair on the strung head, the reader is informed, is reminiscent of the fibrous brown strands of the coconut.

In contrast, coastal India has a scenic landscape dotted with elegant coconut trees, laden with copious fruit and  also an  oral tradition  dominated by phalanxes of mothers who ensured that the hair conditioning effects of coconut oil on the lustrous black tresses of their daughters checked their hair from taking on the coarse textures of  coconut fibre.

Antifungal, antimicrobial, healing and soothing, aiding digestion and promoting HDL, used in soaps and cosmetic creams, a tonic for hair, teeth and skin and a powerhouse for the heart, liver and pancreas, enabling these organs to de-stress, the coconut is all-pervasive 

The utilitarian response to the coconut in the West was primarily responsible for the bad press that the fruit received. Keen to promote the intake of butter and raise levels of cholesterol among humans, the butter lobby in the US spread false calumny against the unspeaking coconut. As a result, doctors in distant Third World countries perceived coconut fat with distaste, issued warnings against it and suspected that its saturated fats were on a par with hydrogenated oils. Our national reverence for dairy products emanating from the cow also reinforced this false belief.

Overnight, coconut fruit, fluid, fibre and fat were banished from most coconut-eating households. Every lifestyle disease from diabetes to clogged arteries and obesity was attributed to the consumption of coconut oil. Harry Bellafonte’s hymn on the virtues of this regal fruit in   ‘Cocoanut Woman’ fell on deaf ears. It took well over 20 years of stoic suffering before  adverse  reports were withdrawn and  new studies announced the magical properties of the  coconut  fruit, water, milk and oil to the world at large. 

Coconut water is now a preferred health drink and is offered to invalids and convalescents. Mega-hospitals in Delhi and Gurgaon have coconut water on their patient recovery menus, although one wishes they would banish the tetrapack and source out the real stuff. Palates that relish South Asian cuisine have triggered  a demand for coconut milk (extracted from the freshly ground pulp), sold in India and many parts of the multi-cuisine world in powder and liquid form.

In the last decade, coconut products have been acknowledged as the new elixirs of health. It is assimilated in every possible form of cooking known to the world and also packs a punch as an alcoholic beverage. Antifungal, antimicrobial, healing and soothing, aiding digestion and promoting High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL), widely used in soaps and cosmetic creams, a tonic for   hair, teeth  and skin and a powerhouse for the heart, liver and pancreas, enabling these complex organs to de-stress, the coconut is all-pervasive.  Vetted by Ayurvedic medicine, the mantle of greatness has now fallen upon the modest coconut. To this recently re-anointed icon of the 21st century, obeisance must be paid.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012