Use your coconut: Working with the whole tree in Sri Lanka

The Perennial Plate

The Perennial Plate could give you wanderlust really quickly … at least if you're curious about food. The weekly, online documentary series follows two people who travel the world learning -- and filming -- how people really eat in their home countries.

The duo, chef Daniel Klein and camerawoman Mirra Fine, find their way into home kitchens, onto farms and fishing boats. And they have a goal: 12 countries, in-depth, in 18 months. They've just returned from Sri Lanka.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I was looking at some of the notes on your site, and you talk about a family in Sri Lanka that has a coconut plantation.

coconut delivery wagon
A coconut delivery wagon in Sri Lanka (The Perennial Plate)

Mirra Fine: Yes. For the people of Sri Lanka, the coconut is really a source of life. Not only because it is an ingredient that is found in most Sri Lankan foods, but also because the coconut tree itself, from the trunk to the leaves to the actual nut, is used in non-food elements of their life. So when we landed in Sri Lanka, we wanted to set out to discover all the uses of the coconut. We found a family who lived on and owned a coconut plantation.

LRK: Coconut palms are huge -- they are like skyscrapers. How did they work these trees?

MF: It's crazy: They free-climb up this 100-foot coconut tree.

Daniel Klein: I tried to climb up a coconut tree, by the way. I got about 3 feet.

MF: There are two ways that we saw how to climb a coconut tree. One is that they cut chunks of the coconut and tie it around the tree with rope made from fibers from the coconut. They tie these at intervals up the trunk.

LRK: Like a ladder.

MF: Yes, like a man-made ladder -- a very scary ladder. This guy will climb up using no nets or safety rope to the top of the tree to tap for toddy, which is a type of alcohol that comes from the sap of a coconut tree.

DK: It's like a coconut wine.

LRK: It's at the top of the tree where it has to be done?

MF: Yes. It's at the top of the tree where a shoot comes out that eventually turns into a flower that will eventually produce the nut. Before that flower comes out, they cut the bud. Then they will tie it off with a strap that's made from the actual coconut so that it can collect the sap. After 3 weeks, they go back up again and collect all the sap in a pot. They tightrope walk from the top of one coconut tree to the next.

LRK: How tall are these trees?

MF: These were at least 100 feet.

DK: They were really tall -- it's crazy. We put a camera on the guy's head for our videos, so you can see him scaling this tree and walking across.

MF: They pray to the tree before they climb up because they realize how dangerous it is. They know that they are lucky to be safe on each of these trees. They go from one tree to the next to collect all the sap, and they finally come down with what is known as sweet toddy, because it has not yet been fermented.

DK: Or it's fermented -- it's at about 1 percent alcohol at that point. So just overnight with the heat, it's already started to gain that fermentation. By that evening it will have gone up to 3 or 4 percent alcohol.

MF: But not fermented enough to be called toddy. The sweet toddy is amazing; we got to try it. It looks like lemonade in color and it tastes like sweet kombucha mixed with coconut.

DK: Coconut kombucha -- a little bit effervescent. I was shocked. It was alive with crazy flavor and coconut sweetness; it's really delicious. But also it had a lot of bees in it and different things.

LRK: So you want to filter it. Are they marketing this?

DK: They are selling really every part of the coconut. They are selling the toddy to a toddy producer, they are selling their husks to a rope producer, they are selling the oil to an oil producer, and then they use the coconuts for their own cooking and also to build huts and things like that.

LRK: Every part of that plant figures into their lives in some way.

MF: Every part. Their kitchen is outside of their house; it's in the back yard. It's a makeshift hut that is made almost entirely from the coconut tree. The structure is made out of beams that were made out of the trunk; the roof is made from the coconut tree leaves that were woven and dried. And in the open fire, the firewood came from the coconut trees.

LRK: As far as the food goes, we know about coconut milk and shredded coconut. What other ways are they used?

DK: Those are the primary uses, but they use them in many different ways. Coconut milk is used in just about every single dish. It’s one of the staples of Sri Lanka's sambal, which is shredded coconut -- they grind it over mortar and pestle, onions, chile, and sometimes dried fish or shrimp. They served it to us for breakfast with coconut rice; they cook rice and they pour in a little coconut milk at the end, let it sit, and then serve it.

cooking with coconut
Cooking with coconut in Sri Lanka (The Perennial Plate)

MF: In true island style, they made a coconut roti, which is like naan bread but a little more dense and round. And they made that by mixing flour with shaved coconut, making it into a patty, and then placing it on a huge leaf that they put on top of a hot plate, and then cooking it that way.

DK: And then of course there's the coconut water, which has become popular here. But there everywhere along the road, everyone is selling king coconuts just to crack open and drink. So I made it a point to have at least a coconut every day in Sri Lanka. They crack it open, they cut off a little piece, and they make a spoon out of the side of the coconut; then you scoop out the inside and you have this pudding.

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