Notes From Sri Lanka: A Lesson in Coconuts

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©. K Martinko – Rohana scales a coconut palm to harvest fresh sap.

It's the ultimate zero-waste crop, useful from root to shoot.

Think of coconut, and what comes to mind? Perhaps dried coconut, used in desserts like macaroons, or cans of creamy coconut milk, a perfect addition to spicy curries. If you've traveled to a tropical country, maybe you think of fresh green coconuts, the ultimate in refreshing beverages.

But there's so much more that coconut can do, as I've learned while traveling in Sri Lanka. In fact, for many rural-dwelling families here, the coconut palm is a provider of numerous products. I got a crash course in coconut customs from Ajith Kapurubandara, guide for the Intrepid Travel tour that I have joined for two weeks.

Just outside of Negombo, Ajith took us to a private residence with several towering coconut palms lining the edge of a well-swept, packed dirt yard. He introduced us to the man who lives there, Rohana, who has been scaling coconut palms since childhood.

The palms, Ajith explained, live for 80 years, but they provide for their owners throughout (and even after) their life. For example, the leaves are large and fan-like, with a stiff fiber running down the center. That fiber is taken out and used to make brooms and rugs for homes. When the leaves are soaked in water for several weeks, they become soft and can be woven to make a natural roof material. The bark is also useful for roof-building, as it contains plenty of fiber, making it hard for insects to attack as long as it's kept dry.

Coconut shells have long been used for cups and bowls, although less commonly now; and when the palm tree eventually dies, its trunk is used as firewood. Whatever is left gets burned, and then banana farmers gather the ash to spread around their plants as fertilizer.

Then there are the crops produced by the coconut palm. Most familiar is the coconut fruit, which grows from a flower. It takes a full year for one coconut to reach harvest, and each flower produces 20-25 coconuts. New flowers bloom every three months, which means that a coconut palm farmer has a fairly regular crop to harvest. That process is a dangerous one, as it requires either climbing the tree or using a long bamboo stick with a blade to cut them down.

coconut fruits

© K Martinko – Ajith shows off a coconut flower with tiny coconuts fruits beginning to grow, while Rohana looks on.

What I didn't know is that flowers are sometimes 'tapped' instead of being allowed to mature. They release a white sap that is captured by a plastic jug – much like tapping a maple tree. This liquid, known here as 'toddy', is either drunk straight or turned into honey-like treacle (used to make jaggery sugar), vinegar, or arrack, a traditional Sri Lankan spirit. The jugs must be emptied twice daily because the flowers release so much liquid.

As we stood listening to Ajith's lesson, he suddenly announced that Rohana would get some fresh toddy for us to try. Suddenly he was scaling the palm tree "like a modern-day Tarzan," to quote one of my fellow travellers. We all held our breath as he climbed rapidly and confidently to the top, emptied the jug of toddy into another one tied to his waist, and then stepped onto a tightrope spanning two trees to empty a second jug. Back down he came, cool as a coconut, the rest of us quaking with fear on his behalf.

The toddy was filtered through a sieve into coconut shells and passed around for sampling. It had a strong stench that Ajith likened to durian: "Smells like hell, tastes like heaven." Fermented by the tropical sun, it was unpleasantly fizzy and warm in my mouth, but I gulped it down anyway, hoping Rohana's jug was clean enough not to make me sick. (36 hours later, everything's fine, so I think I'm in the clear.)

fresh coconut toddy

© K Martinko – Cups of fresh coconut toddy, warm and fermented from the tree.

We thanked him for the sample and returned to our vehicle. One of my older travel companions declared he could "feel the years slipping away" after drinking his cup of toddy, and would be able to throw away the cholesterol pills if he kept that up. Meanwhile, I mulled over the fact that I'll never look at a coconut palm in the same way again. These majestic trees are a prime example of root-to-shoot agriculture, as useful as they are beautiful.

The author is the guest of Intrepid Travel in Sri Lanka. There was no requirement to write this article.