The Syrian Christian coconut February 21, 2007Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
C Y Gopinath presents a possibly imaginary sweet that is made only once a year by certain Keralite families no-one seems to know about
ONCE UPON A TIME, long ago, in the enchanted part of India known as the Backwaters, there lived a simple villager named Mohan. Thin but wiry, with jet black hair and intense eyes, Mohan had one great passion — cooking. It was widely acknowledged (or at least undisputed in the stretch of the Backwaters where the Onam Boat Race is held annually) that when it came to wizardry in the kitchen, there was nothing even Mohan’s mother could have taught him.
Whenever there were visitors to his part of the waters, Mohan would brusquely shoo away the womenfolk and take over their kitchen. The women, who knew they would never be a match for Mohan, would outwardly mutter and groan and feign inconvenience as they left. Later, after he had conjured up a perfectly magical feast, Mohan would summon them to serve the food. He himself would modestly retire to a vantage behind some coconut tree, probably to study the expressions on his guests’ faces as they ate.
The thing that I do not know about Mohan is whether he was capable of cooking up recipes in his head as well as in the kitchen. Some cooks are like that, you know. They can effortlessly imagine into existence a dish that perhaps no-one could possibly ever make.
And this is why today, nearly six years after I met Mohan, I still do not know if the Syrian Christian Coconut is for real or something Mohan dreamed up to make me smile as I left Allepey.
It was a film shoot. It was a hot and humid day, with bright, clear sunlight and sweat glinting on foreheads and knuckles of the unit members. Lunch, when it was finally served on plantain leaves in a shady backyard, was a welcome break.
As the women bustled about, tittering courteously and serving, I began to wonder who among them had created such amazing food. There was a dish featuring mussels and yams in a coconut gravy; another featuring jackfruit and tiger prawns; a sort of spicy sambar; crisp fried tapioca wafers. And that was when Mahesh Mathai, the film’s director, introduced me to his friend Mohan.
Mohan spoke no English, and I barely understand Malayalam, but when people are united by affection for the craft of good cooking, words hardly pose a barrier. In the boat on the way back to Cochin, I used an interpreter to probe Mohan’s love of cooking.
His answers, it seemed to me, were somewhat distracted, as though he had some more urgent mission. Suddenly he asked me: “Shall I tell you about the Syrian Christian Coconut?” And that was how it unfolded.
Once a year (said Mohan), just after the paddy harvest, certain families of land-owning Syrian Christians go through the ceremony of parboiling the rice in ancient stone vats in their backyards. During the several hours that the grain boils, they take advantage of the extreme heat within the vats to have a brief and passionate extra-marital affair with the coconut. The result is an exotic, lyrical dessert that you will be lucky to find only once a year, provided you are in the right Syrian Christian home at the right time.
The coconut should be well-chosen, neither so tender that the inner flesh is pulpy and loose, nor so mature that the white has hardened into a shell. Once such coconuts have been selected, a slice is neatly removed from the top, and the sweet water drained through the opening.
Each coconut is now stuffed with a delicious mixture featuring flattened rice (pohe in Mumbai, aval in Kerala), jaggery, a few cardamom pods, some jeera and a spoon of clarified butter). The coconut’s lid is now replaced, and the entire gizmo is bound up tightly with cloth — and tossed into the vat where the rice is boiling.
Here, in the intense heat of the cauldron, the treasure within the coconut is transformed by a process that is neither boiling nor baking nor entirely pressure cooking nor anything else. For a few hours, the coconut dances about in the water, like an impatient egg in an incubator. When the rice is finally parboiled, the coconut too is all set to deliver.
If you’ve done it right, according to Mohan, then you should be able to tear away the outer husk of the coconut, which would have tuned loose and fibrous. Sitting within it like a nearly perfect pearl, should be a hot, white ball filled with a heavenly sweetness. Through the hole in the top, you’d probably get wafts of cardamom, cumin and butter. You merely let it cool, and then serve it.
Mohan disappeared into Kerala’s dusk, and I never met him again. Back in Mumbai, I valiantly tried to recreate the Syrian Christian Coconut at a friend’s house, using a pressure cooker instead of a stone vat, but all I got was a misshapen pulp and a demolished coconut. Since then, I have collared many a Syrian Christian and asked them to tell me yea or nay about the Syrian Christian Coconut. They have all heard me out patiently; some have shaken their heads sadly; others have smiled tolerantly.
They didn’t say it, but I could tell they thought I was nuts.