I’d wager that the first thing that comes to mind when some hear the word ‘coconut’, is the heavily processed white sweet stuff in a Bounty bar. The wax-like, sugary, crystallized dandruff coated in chocolate, the one interloper in a box of Celebrations that no one is celebrating.
Some may think about the white shavings and sprinkles at dessert bars, others about the oil they use in cooking or as moisturiser, and a number of people, especially those familiar with Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai and Malay cuisine (to name a few) are thinking about the milk or the flakey scraped innards used in curries, sauces and broths. But I what I think about is what some call a tender coconut, the actual seed/fruit/nut thing that is taken off the palm at a particular moment, to consume freshly by drinking its sweet water and gorging on its creamy flesh inside.
It sounds rather sadistically macabre, but now that I think about it, if you contemplate the visage of a coconut, head shaped as it is, or as one of the myriad testes hanging atop a coconut palm tree, then things get grosser still. With a curved, almost hooked blade, it is severed off the branches from its brothers and sisters, held in an open, nimble outstretched hand, or for the inexperienced, on a wooden stake, and is viciously scalped by the vendor until a hole is formed at the top brimming with juice or an opaque membrane of coconut flesh. The vendor gives it to you to drink, puncturing the membrane with a straw. Once you’re finished with the gloriously cool, sweet, subtly odorous coconut water, he takes the nut from you. There is still more to be done.
The coconut receives two sharp whistling chops to corresponding sides, splitting it in half. If you are seeing this for the first time you will flinch; the knife always strikes true, though a little too close to the vendor’s fingers for comfort. He then chips another small shallow piece off the side of the coconut to use as a spoon.
To get to the opaline pulp within, one must prize the split halves apart, tearing and ripping at the fibers that hold them together. The makeshift spoon that you will soon eat with, is used to skilfully scrape the milky treasure adorning the concaves within. The vendor then transfers everything to one half of the coconut, now a bowl, after which he hands it over with a sun-kissed smile. His spindly body, moving with the ease of a coconut tree in the winter breeze, clothed in stained, torn and worn work gear (usually just old clothes), is unaware of the spectacle of his performance. It is an impressive and violent process made more so by the nonchalance of the vendor’s death-defying showmanship and dexterity. You almost want to give him an ovation.
Every time I have visited Goa with my father, we’ve always had to have at least a couple of coconuts whenever we left the house – which sometimes meant every day. On our way to anywhere we’d stop by a road side or market, and grab a few from a man by a cart or a woman set up on some tarpaulin, or behind a coconut bedecked table. Sometimes when our driver would tell us there’d be no coconut vendors on route, we’d either change our plans or take an inconvenient detour because somehow starting the day without tender coconuts seemed wrong.
Goan coconuts, the true Goan ones from Goan trees, removed from their perches at the top end of long bendy tree trunks by skilled, seasoned tappers that have been doing so all their lives for generations, are nothing short of magnificent. These coconuts are delicious but are now getting increasingly hard to find, and to bridge the gap between the steadily decreasing number of homegrown tappers and the rise in demand as people flood into the state, coconuts are being brought from other parts of India and made to masquerade as local produce. The sons of tappers today are keen to leave the hereditary occupations of their ancestors and explore more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. Who could blame them?
The man at the stall selling you coconuts will not tell you if the coconuts are local unless you ask. He thrives on the business of ignorant tourists who’ve never had a local coconut before, and for so cheap a price. It is ludicrous to think that some people sell a single coconut here in London for six quid, when one in Goa would cost 40-60p and still be considered expensive.
But if a thoroughbred Goan like my dad makes inquiry, I’ve rarely found a vendor to lie to one of their own. Even if they do, it only takes a coconut or two to figure them out. You see there are a few things that have to be considered before you start to distinguish these coconuts by taste. There are aspects of the transaction that have to be observed in order for one to get the product they came for.
A clear sign that a vendor is not local and his coconuts consequently from elsewhere, is their inability to speak a lick of Konkani. I’ve been told that indigenous speakers of the language would much prefer to cut out any middle men, thus placing either themselves, their brothers, wives or sons to conduct their business of selling coconuts. When asking for a coconut, the specific kind where you get both coconut water and the soft pulp, pathod in Konkani, you must watch the vendor closely, for how he chooses his coconuts is key. Pay attention to his physiognomy when he begins to flick coconuts with his index finger, he is testing for hollowness and its antithesis, and a certain sound that characterises the in between, where it suggests more than just water. If you see them flicking coconuts for the sake of doing so, without paying attention to the sound, there is a good chance they have no idea what they are doing.
Try to avoid places where the coconuts have been left out in the sun. I assure you on a hot day in Goa, when the sun is bearing down with unrelenting fervour, there are few things more disappointing than warm coconut water. Also heat speeds up the process of fermentation that occurs within the coconut (this also happens through the aging process), stimulating the transition of sweet water to a gassy, piquant mixture which begins to taste like ‘toddy’ (the sap that can either be drank fresh or fermented into palm wine). My dad and uncles love the stuff, but I’m too soft a Goan for it; the stuff makes me gag. When the coconuts are placed in the shade you can rest assured that at the very least your juice will be cool, even if you are disappointed by the flavour in the end.
If the first three coconuts are not sweet then it is the affliction of the batch that has been brought down, an indictment of the vendor. It must be mentioned that even though this might be so, it is somewhat unfair to feel cheated because procuring and assessing coconuts is an incredibly difficult job that requires significant experience and specialisation. Short of some sort of x-ray technology, I don’t know how else one could accurately determine the content of an unbroken coconut. But for some people this is possible, for they know their craft absolutely, the shokunins of Goa that never cease to impress with their consistency and skill. A seasoned Goan coconut vendor is a person whose services you must cherish and make exclusive like a favourite barber, butcher, fish monger or chef. By your continuous return there is trust built on both sides, trust these individuals do not take lightly.
So, you watch the process, you drink the refreshing drink and you slurp at the soft flesh of the coconut’s innards, several times over, until you are full to bursting and slumped over in your car. Or you might be like my father, and after a couple of coconuts become energised and ready for anything, with sleep shaken off and blood sugar levels restored. Either way, you’ve now got Goa coursing through your veins, the essence of her culture, her food and way of life. The world is your tender coconut.