September 2017


The Versatile Coconut
September 2017




The coconut palm is truly a wonder tree, the Kapruka

Grown in abundance and delighted throughout a multitude of cuisines, this wonder product of nature - the coconut - has woven itself into day to day life so intricately that Sri Lankans find it useful not only as a cooking condiment, but a variety of uses. The coconut plant, for its ability to deliver virtually "anything that you can ask for" has rightly therefore earned the name 'Kapruka' - or the tree that can give you everything.


Words: Shyam Ranasinghe | Photography: Rasika Surasena


The Husk
The nut of the coconut is naturally covered with a thick husk which must be removed. This too is not put to waste. The husks are left to soak in a stagnant pool of water for 1 ½ to 2 months which results in the loosening of the fibres. They are then grated out which separates the thick outer skin from the fibres. The fibres now called coir are then separated and can be used for a variety of products including brushes, brooms, weaving of ropes and string for nets and carpets. The coconut coir is one of the few natural products that is resistant to sea water and therefore has a high appeal in coastal areas. The coir may be coloured in black or smoked in sulphur to produce a golden hue which are used in high valued coir products. The coir dust that is leftover from the extraction is used to make coir peat.


The coconut is truly a wonder tree. Virtually nothing of it goes unused and a complete description is enough to fill an encyclopaedia. The trunk of the tree is a popular choice amongst carpenters as well as in the construction industry. The branches are used for thatched roofs whilst the spine of the leaf known as the ekel is used from producing brooms to constructing kites. The flower of the coconut is tapped for its sap and goes on to produce vinegar, jaggery, toddy and spirits. The list is endless, which is why it is called "Kapruka - The tree that can give you anything".

On a more creative note, the coconut shell is used to create an elaborate variety of ornaments and other beauties of creation.


Fact file

- Scientific name - Cocos nucifera
- Based on available facts, Sri Lanka is the fifth largest producer in the world for coconuts.
- The largest coconut producing area found within the Colombo - Kurunegala - Puttlam boundary is known as the 'Coconut triangle'.


On the Shell
The coconut shell, which is leftover once the flesh is grated out, holds a number of uses. It holds a very high specific heat content and as such is a popular choice for burning the hearth in the house. In the good old days, coconut shells were used as the heat source in irons used in laundries. Today the product has evolved into producing charcoal.


On a more creative note, the coconut shell is used to create an elaborate variety of ornaments and other beauties of creation. The best shells to use are the ones with the 'three eyes' indicating a thick and strong shell. A simple grinder is used to rough out the cracks along the rim as well as to fine out the surface. Using cutting, drilling and grinding tools it becomes the foundation to bring to life one's imagination.


In the Kitchen
Coconut is an essential ingredient in a wide range of Sri Lankan dishes. The flesh of the coconut, glistening in its snowy white hue, once finely grated is the base for many dishes.


Coconut milk which is squeezed out from the grated coconut mixed with water becomes the foundation for virtually all Sri Lankan 'curries' which is indispensible in the spicy diet. Mix in with a dash of chilli powder, salt, a finely chopped onion, maybe a spot of tomato or lime juice, sprinkle of maldive fish and - presto - you get yourself a spicy condiment famous across the island as 'Pol Sambol' or literally the coconut sambal.


Coconut oil, extracted from the flesh of the coconut is the main medium used for frying and flavouring throughout the local cuisine. The flesh is finely cut and allowed to dry until it contains minimal or no moisture at all. Using a simple press, these finely cut and dried coconut cuttings are extracted of their oil. The remnants of this extract is not put to waste as it forms the base for coconut cake popularly known as poonac which is used for feeding livestock. The freshly pressed coconut oil is rather crude in colour and appearance and must be filtered or left still for impurities to settle down before using the bright coloured coconut oil. In addition to its kitchen use, coconut oil is also used in cosmetics, medicine and many other industrial products. A refined process of extracting coconut oil is to desiccate the coconut flesh before extracting which results in what is known as white coconut oil, which is a prized export product. Pressing for coconut oil is a common household industry in rural Sri Lanka.

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    Coconut thatched roofs are common in the village

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    Coconut husks make for sturdy coir rope

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    Coconut husks make for sturdy coir rope
    © Shyam Ranasinghe

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    The mature coconut

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    Refreshing kurumba (young coconut)

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    Unique accessories made out of coconut shells

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    Young coconut leaves are closely linked with Sri Lankan culture

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    Coconuts are used in Buddhist and Hindu prayer rituals

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    The snowy white flesh is the base for many Island dishes

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    Sri Lankan soul food: pol sambol

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