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The Marvelous Nut – Coconut

The Marvelous Nut – Coconut

Shalini Kala

Coconut finds its way in this story by Shalini where she uses her unique style of storytelling to bring delight to her readers not only for the breadbasket but also for the mind.

By Shalini Kala 

 I have always loved it- its taste, textureand aroma – even though I grew up in the arid lands of north India where its trees are mostly seen only on faded or unnaturally bright calendar pictures of exotic-looking, tranquil, faraway lands.  It mostly features in sweet dishes and is a must for any pooja on auspicious occasions inHindu households.  Traditionally, most Hindu bridesare given a piece at marriage which is to be saved for a long time in theirnew family pooja ghar, I was alsogiven one for my kid that has seen fifteen interesting summers.

Yes, I am talking of the coconut.  Mum’s pantry always had a dry coconut, saved with other nuts and dried fruits; and even though it was much less expensive than them, it was treated with the same respect and slightly higher reverence than the others in this group.  Dried and grated coconut with fennel seeds and sugar rock crystals were chewed regularly after meals, especially after the heavy ones.

This mix was a must have during mum’s bhajan gatherings for its professed soothing and strength-giving qualities to musical throats.  As a child it was an any-time-of-the-day favourite of mine, more like, not-too-sweet candy that treated chronic restlessness.  Needless to say, it frequently had an “OVER” ticked against its status.

Then there was the filling for Gujiya where grated coconut shone like a star, transforming its texture and flavour magically. Mum had to keep our hands off the filling to be able to get the Gujiyas done every Holi and Diwali.  When we were on our best behaviour, she’d prepare extra filling for us greedy pigs, to be munched without the Gujiya pastry pockets.  Those dopamine-triggering moments were heavenly and deeply etchedinto our little brains, and are so still.  Coconut macaroons available in city bakeries were a rare indulgence in the last century but they could never beat the Gujiya.

The other coconut delights, in the last century,were the fresh coconut slicesavailable on major traffic intersections especially on inter-state highways.  But mum being mum, these were a total no-no.  On our trips outside the city, peeping from our bus windows we couldn’t stop our tongues hanging out of our mouths, salivating at these brown-on-the-outside and white-on-the-inside treats.  This, even when mum was a great fan of the wholesome nutrition that coconut offers.

She often told us the story of Papillon’s wrongful incarceration, his several prison breaks, and how as a fugitive at sea for many monthshe survived on just half a coconut every day.  That sealed the supreme health food status of coconut in our home.

For hair health there were only two types of oils recommended in our geography – mustard oil which has a pungent smell and coconut oil which is much more pleasant and doesn’t act like a people-repellent.  Thus, in the north Indian cities coconut oil came to be preferred over the more conventional mustard oil during the last two-three decades of the twentieth century, especially among those who considered themselves more sophisticated and genteel in taste.  Who were we to stop ourselves from falling into this category?

But this essential element of coconut wasn’t fully understood in north India, and even with ample communication about its many benefits especially by sellers, it still isn’t really appreciated for what it truly is.  Just the idea of cooking in coconut oil was considered not only extremely strange but also a sure way to turn your intestines inside out.

For the Northies there were special banana chips on the shop rack, “fried only in VEGETABLE OIL”. Even today, except for that tiniest of highly enlightened society that prefers to cook in cold pressed coconut grease, much of its use in north Indian is restricted to scalps, in the hope of a healthy crop of flowing, shiny tresses and in that matter, its reputation is unshakeable.

Not revealing the extent of our limited knowledge of this wonder anymore, I am not going to speak about using coconut milk in curries or otherwise or drinking tender coconut water.  Obviously, we Northies still need much more education on this wonder fruit, and I say this without a speck of embarrassment or awkwardness.  And that’s because coconut trees don’t grow in our fields that historically limited their availability, and given this, isn’t it commendable that we know as much as we do about coconut to savour it in some, if not all, of its forms?

The one thing that didn’t pass the muster for me was the coconut barfi available at mithai shops.  It was made from dried, grated coconut which, I promise you, was squeezed of all its oil and milk, and was super loaded with the most refined of sugars and sometimes displayed a pink hue from the added chemical colour.  It threatened to crush my love for coconut; I have religiously kept away from it.

However, even though fresh coconut wasn’t easily and frequently available, the laddoos made at home with it were delectable.  They involved much stirring especially when done with milk and had a narrow shelf life in the fridge-less days of yore.  Hence, they too were a rarity and were only prepared in the winters.

Over time, with travel across the country and beyond to those exotic, tranquil lands, my own sense of the versatility of coconut improved by leaps and bounds.  More recently, having moved to the edge of south India and next to the coast has been a big booster in expanding this knowledge.  Mum would be smiling at the regular appearance of fresh coconut in my home.

Even S, the staunch Northie that he is in food tastes, seemed to have transformed somewhat in appreciating coconut beyond the regular north Indian fare.  N has known nothing else; she’s the queen when it comes to consuming coconut in any form including rich coconut curries.

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For me tender sweet coconut water is incomparable to any drink, I even put it before tea which is my most favourite twice-a-day beverage; I could have never imagined this in the last century but my acute apprehension about coconut in curries lies abandoned somewhere unknown; my skills at using coconut oil to cook are still limited but my inclination to rustle up childhood coconut goodies is at its fiercest.

Coconut Jaggery Laddoos

Mix well grated coconut and grated or powered jaggery in 2:1 ratio by volume; adjust as per taste.  Finely grated coconut will result in uniform surfaced laddoos. Long strands of coconut make for more texture and chewiness.  I use both cane and palm jaggery, whatever is available.  There is a slight difference in taste, though I like both versions.

  Picture 2…..

In a pan or wok, heat this mix over medium to low flame, stirring regularly till the mix comes together.  Test by pressing a little bit in your palm to form a laddoo.  If it crumbles easily, on pressing gentlywith a finger, cook more till the mix binds together tightly on forming the laddoo.  Take off the heat and rest for about 5 minutes.  Grease palms with a little ghee and shape the mix into laddoos between your palms.  This should be done while the mixture is warm.  Place the laddoos on a plate or tray greased lightly with ghee.  They will be gobbled up in no time, but if they aren’t, refrigerate them and take out about 20 minutes before to enjoy full flavours of this all-time-hit.

Also read: What Made Me Lick My Fingers? 

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