An Ode to the Coconut

Cocoanut woman is calling out
And everyday you can hear her shout
Cocoanut woman is calling out
And everyday you can hear her shout
Get your cocoanut water, four for five
Man it’s good for your daughter, four for five
Coco got a lotta iron, four for five
Make you strong like a lion, four for five

Long before Harry Belafonte extolled the virtues of the Coconut, people living along the coast in India had accorded it a pride of place both at their altar as well as their table.  My earliest memories of the coconut involved my father tapping coconuts with his fingers and listening carefully to select the one that had the most water and hence not likely to be dry.  Coins were an effective substitute if you did not fancy drumming your fingers on the coconut.

Once we got the coconut home from the store, it would be shorn off all its fibres, the nut would be cleaved into two with some well timed strokes of a sickle (all the while rotating the coconut so it would form two equal halves).  I would be waiting ready at hand with a glass to collect the water.  I never had the patience to strain the water, it would be quaffed fibers et al and some floating debris of coconut shells which would then be spit out.

It was rare that the coconut would be used whole, it would invariably be grated. If I was lucky, I would get to pry some pieces of the kernel and eat them.  The grater itself was this medieval looking yet effective contraption – essentially a blade fixed to a platform on which one could rest one’s knee  and grate the coconut on the serrated blade.  The first few strokes yielded white moist flakes which were really tasty.  As one got deeper, the flakes turned brownish and drier.  You were getting shell now.


The grated coconut then found its way into various dishes.  Idlis (steamed rice dumplings), dosas (crepes/pancakes) could never really stand on their own without an accompaniment of freshly ground coconut chutney.  When it came to shevai (rice vermicelli) the shevai contained ground coconut and for good measure, grated coconut was used in the spicy churan.  The perfect trifecta of course was shevai, coconut oil and churan!  If you were in an expansive mood, you could eat the shevai with rosu – sweetened coconut milk.   If for some reason you did not have coconut for breakfast, you still applied coconut oil to your hair.  On cold, foggy Bangalore mornings, the oil hardened in my hair as I waited for the bus on my way to school.  You could say I never had a hair out of place!

A lady tell me the other day
No one can take her sweet man away
I ask her what was the mystery
She say cocoanut water and rice curry
You can cook it in a pot, four for five
You can serve it very hot, four for five
Coco got a lotta iron, four for five
Make you strong like a lion, four for five

At lunch it was really a matter of whether the grated coconut formed the base of one of the myriad ghashis, koddels, ambats or sukkes (coconut based curries) or whether it was added as a final topping to one of the vegetable upkaris (stir fry).  At tea time in the evening, you could find coconut  in the phova usli or phova upkari or it showed in a “soyye khadi”(Khobri mithai), delicious coconut candy which was brown if made with jaggery or white if made with sugar.  Dinners were a repeat of lunch.  Did I forget the chutneys – garlic or bilimbi to name a couple.

And then there were special occasions.  Madgane (dessert made with coconut milk, jaggery and channa dal) for Ugadi, Panchkadai for Ganesh chaturthi and Krishna ashtami (sweet made with 5 items including coconut) and Patholi (steamed dumpling wrapped in turmeric leaf) for Naag Panchami.  Invariably the whole coconut also found its way into the religious ceremonies, usually with an application of kumkum.  These coconuts never made their way into any non-vegetarian dishes, they were hallowed and so invariably they were transformed into one of the many desserts.

I did mention coconut oil before.  A daily topping on my head was not its only use.  It was used to season the Konkani Kuldevatha (family deity) Daali Thoi.  It was added to shevai along with churan or avakai pickles.  It was poured on khottos, pathrades, and sanna khottes.  Dishes such as batate song (potato curry) owe their distinct flavor to the onions being fried in coconut oil and no seafood curry is complete without a dollop of coconut oil.  Hardcore enthusiasts use coconut oil for deep frying banana chips and other snacks.


Tender coconuts for sale near Bull temple, Bangalore

Tender coconut water was particularly refreshing on a hot summer day.  These were sold by roadside vendors who would ask you if you wanted a coconut with water only or with “malai” the creamy coconut kernel.  Tender coconut water was especially recommended to avoid dehydration when we had upset stomachs.  I thought it was an old wives tale until I read later that tender coconut water was used used as a substitute for IV fluid during wars.

When an occasional rat found its way into our house, a sliver of coconut would be roasted in ghee and then placed in a rat trap.  I don’t think there is a rat that could resist the aroma!  I don’t think it was the cholesterol that got to them!

As we grew up, we heard rumblings about the cholesterol and saturated fat in coconuts.  We cut back on our use of coconuts and coconut based curries were eaten sparingly.  My mother and mother-in-law were never quite convinced, their simple logic being that it was eaten for generations without any apparent ill effects.  I guess we’ve come a full circle now, Dr. Oz promotes coconut oil now as miracle food and we were mildly surprised to find Costco selling jars of virgin coconut oil.

After all the coconut I’ve eaten, I’ve never felt like a lion but I’ve tried out Belafonte’s advice regarding coconut water and rum.  I didn’t feel like a gypsy but it did make me feel pretty good!

Cocoanut woman says you’ll agree
cocoanut make very nice candy
The thing that’s best if you’re feelin’ glum
Is cocoanut water with a little rum
It could make you very tipsy, four for five
Make you feel like a gypsy, four for five
Coco got a lotta iron, four for five
Make you strong like a lion, four for five

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    March 16, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Awesome write-up, Rajesh!!!! It took me on a trip down memory lane! Good that you added the youtube link to the actual Harry Belafonte song, had not heard it until now. 🙂

  • Reply
    March 17, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Thanks Anu. Belafonte has it going on!

  • Reply
    March 19, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    Ode to the cocnut is beautifully written. We konkani’s cannot live without it.

  • Reply
    March 19, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    Thanks aunty, coconuts do play a prominent role in Konkani cooking or for that matter in Kerala cooking too.

  • Leave a Reply