There was always a specific vendor for coconuts at our local vegetable market in Mumbai. With a thick metal ring on his finger, he would go knock-knock on the coconut. The right kind of sound meant that the coconut was fresh and good to buy. There is also the shake test. Shake the coconut close to your ear (mind your head) and if you hear a good amount of water splish-splashing inside, it is a sign of freshness. The older the coconut, the less the liquid inside, for it gets absorbed gradually.
In Hindu culture, coconuts are a sign of all things auspicious. Breaking a coconut for inaugurations, be it a car or a shop, exchanging coconuts to solemnise a wedding, offering coconuts into the sacred fire of a homam, giving coconuts as a thank-you gift after a puja or a function—coconuts are part of every sacred ritual.
I was curious about how coconuts came to hold this important role in Hindu rituals. I stumbled on quite a few theories explained by people on Quora.
An interesting one suggests that when the concept of ahimsa was introduced in the later Vedic period, the prevalent animal sacrifice had to be replaced with something that did not involve killing a life form. There is a theory that the Hindu philosopher and saint Adi Shankara (~700-750 AD), who was a strong advocate of doing no harm to any living being, promoted the ritual of using coconuts as an offering or a sacrifice. Since he was from Kerala, which has always had an abundance of coconuts, this seems quite possible.
The most practical of all reasons is that coconuts are available all year long. Once bought and stored, they stay for a long time and do not spoil easily; compared to other fresh fruits, then, they are easy to use in pujas and rituals.
Depending on how they are used, the flavour that coconuts lend to a dish can range from delicate to bold. Fresh coconut is used as a garnish in poriyals (a Tamilian-style vegetable dish), adding a mild sweetness and layer of delicate texture to vegetables like beans, carrot and cabbage.
Desiccated coconut is an easy way to use coconut in spice mixes like thengai milagai podi, which is a variety of gun powder with desiccated coconut.
Roasted and browned coconut added to freshly ground spice mixes adds a strong, full-bodied savoury aroma to curries.
Baked or fried coconut chips are possibly the best way to eat coconut. These are invariably the first things I like to pick out of the Diwali chivda.
In smaller families, a grated coconut can easily last a few days, especially if used as a garnish. Grated coconut tends to get rancid if left in the refrigerator. The best way to store it is to pack one-two tablespoons in each compartment of an ice tray and freeze it. The frozen coconut cubes can be removed into a resealable bag and kept in the freezer. Before using it to grind a spice paste, remove the required quantity and let it thaw for an hour or so, or use the microwave to thaw the coconut before grinding. For use as garnish in poriyal, crumble the frozen coconut over the pan. The heat of the prepared dish will soften the coconut.
Here are recipes for two coconut-based sweets that I hope you will try this Diwali weekend.
COCONUT COCOA FUDGE
Makes 26 pieces
200g desiccated coconut
400g condensed milk (1 tin)
2 tbsp milk powder
2 tsp cocoa powder
2 tbsp milk
For the garnish
A few dried rose petals (optional)
In a large, heavy non-stick pan, dry-roast the desiccated coconut in a pan for a minute until lightly aromatic. Remove two-three spoonfuls on a plate to use for garnish.
To the coconut remaining in the pan, add the condensed milk and milk powder. Keep stirring for two-three minutes over a low flame until it comes together in the centre of the pan. Mix the cocoa powder in milk, add it to the mixture in the pan and stir well until the cocoa is well incorporated into the mixture.
Allow to cool for 5 minutes. Divide into 20g portions. Apply some coconut oil on your hands to prevent the mixture from sticking and roll into smooth balls. Place on the dish with the reserved desiccated coconut and roll lightly to coat with the coconut.
Remove to a serving dish and garnish with dried rose petals or keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
A Konkani speciality sweet dish steamed in fresh turmeric leaves
Makes 10 pieces
1 cup idiyappam flour*
Quarter tsp turmeric powder
1 cup grated coconut (fresh)
Half cup powdered jaggery (approximately)
Quarter tsp green cardamom powder
A few strands of saffron
10 small turmeric leaves (tender)**
Take idiyappam flour in a bowl along with turmeric powder. Add water gradually (up to one cup) to get a thick idli batter consistency. The batter should be able to coat the leaf well and not be runny. Mix the coconut, jaggery, cardamom powder and saffron in a bowl. Depending on how sweet the jaggery is, you can use more if needed.
Prepare the leaves by washing and patting them dry with a cloth.
On the shiny part of the leaf, spread the prepared rice flour paste/batter, leaving space at the ends and the circumference. Place the filling on one half of the leaf such that it can be folded in half at the width of the leaf. This makes it a more manageable size for the steamer than folding it lengthwise.
Arrange the folded leaves in a steamer and steam for 10-12 minutes. Serve them warm with ghee. The turmeric leaves are peeled off and discarded.
*Idiyappam flour is available in most supermarkets as well as online. You can also use modak flour.
**If you cannot find turmeric leaves, use banana leaf squares.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.