Food is often a good barometer for understanding a country. When it comes to certain foods passions run high, on occasion causing riots and even revolutions. In Egypt it’s bread that rocks the boat, in Thailand it’s rice but in Sri Lanka it’s all about the coconuts.
In 2010/2011 a coconut shortage in Sri Lanka led to price spikes, forcing the government to intervene and begin importing coconuts to meet consumer demand. Government shops even had to ration the number of coconuts being sold to ensure enough people had access to their beloved drupe. In Sri Lanka no food is more sacred than the mighty coconut, they even have a Minister for Coconut Development. I kid you not.
A visit to Sri Lanka makes you aware of just how intrinsic the coconut is to Sri Lankan life. From the coconut milk in the kitchens to the whole coconuts smashed as offerings at the temple, from roadside stalls selling fresh coconut water to hardware stores offering coir (coconut fibre) ropes and brooms. They’re ubiquitous and hang in abundance from the palm trees that pepper a large swathe of the island. Coconuts are deeply engrained in everyday life here and nowhere more so than in Sri Lankan cuisine.
But before we get to the food, a little bit of context and history about the drupe, because unlike the name suggests, coconuts are in fact drupes…not nuts.
Where did coconuts come from?
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) carried out DNA analysis on 1,300 coconuts from around the world and traced coconut cultivation back to two different locations, producing two distinct coconut populations. One type is traced back to the Pacific Basin and countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, while the other is traced to the Indian Ocean basin and countries like, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the Laccadive Islands. The theory is that these two strains of coconut were transported around the world via a mix of human migration and trade routes, and in some places a genetic mix of the two coconuts can also be found. This map from WUSTL illustrates their theory of how the coconut journeyed around the globe. This is one plausible idea, but some others have suggested that the coconut actually originated in South America and fossil coconuts have even been found in New Zealand, dating from some 10-45 million years ago. I guess we may never know for certain the true origins of the coconut.
Coconut origins in Sri Lanka.
We do know that coconut cultivation in Sri Lanka dates back to around 571 AD, but it was during the colonial period that production was really ramped up and plantations were established. Sri Lanka’s Dutch colonisers initially allowed a large tract of land to be given over to coconut production in the 1700s, which the British then continued to grow after their rule of the country began (1815). It was during the period 1850-1910 that coconut production really began to expand.
Coconuts were initially exported as fresh whole fruits, until the British discovered that the grated flesh could be dried without rotting and thus the less perishable desiccated coconut was born and Sri Lanka became the world’s leading exporter. Coconut oil was also used as a key ingredient in the production of goods such as soap, candles and (the dreaded) margarine. The plantation areas gradually grew into what’s known today as Sri Lanka’s coconut triangle (between the districts of Kurunegala, Puttalam and Colombo).
The coconut is still at the heart of Sri Lankan life but the country’s role on the world stage as a coconut exporter is less important these days (currently the world’s fifth largest exporter), at times struggling to fulfil its domestic needs alone. Elsewhere in the world the coconut has been heralded as the latest wonder-product, a cure for all ills and the replacement for a multitude of other ingredients we should apparently be avoiding. Coconut flour, sugar, oil, water, milk – ingredients that Sri Lankans have been using for aeons – are suddenly fashionable elsewhere, but Sri Lanka hasn’t really jumped on the seemingly unstoppable coconut train. For example, in Sri Lanka coconut water is often seen by farmers as a by-product and thrown away, so this market hasn’t been fully exploited. Lack of access to the expensive technology required to bring it to market has also been a barrier to gaining a bigger share of the global coconut pie.
Worldwide demand for coconuts has risen by some 500% over the last decade, but coconut production in Sri Lanka has remained relatively static since the 80s, while her exports have actually declined. The reasons for the decline are numerous; population growth means that more coconuts are being consumed domestically, urbanisation has seen land given over to development, the country’s ageing coconut trees are not as productive as they once were, while pests and drought have also had an impact.
The shortfall in Sri Lanka’s production has been met with the import of substitute oils like like crude palm oil, palm kernel oil, soya and sunflower oil. Whether these alternative oils are a good replacement is still up for debate as the coconut plays an important role in the traditional diet of the average Sri Lankan. What seems certain is that the substitution of coconut oil with these other oils would have a serious impact on the unique flavour it affords Sri Lankan cuisine.
Sri Lankan coconut culinary delights
Coconut courses through the veins of Sri Lankan food and here are just a few of the coconut-based delights that I managed to sample during my visit to the country.
Fresh coconut water
Coconut in its purest form is served by the roadside in Sri Lanka, where stacks of yellow or green coconuts are ubiquitous. Alongside the coconut bounty you’ll find a machete wielding local, poised to scalp a coconut for you to sip the juice from, quenching your thirst in the tropical heat. But wait, there’s more! Before discarding the now liquid-free shell, hand it back to the machete wielder and they’ll split it in two and fashion a spatula from a slice lopped off the bottom. You can then scoop out and devour the sweet, tender jelly that lives in the middle. That beats drinking a carton of insipid shop bought coconut water any day.
Sri Lanka is the world’s largest producer of coconut arrack. Made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers, it’s the country’s staple spirit and one which has apparently been produced for thousands of years. The sap is collected by toddy tappers and ferments naturally, it can then be drunk as a neat toddy, cooked with, made into vinegar or made into arrack. I didn’t manage to find any toddy vinegar but I did try some arrack.
Arrack is usually served with coconut water or ginger beer in Sri Lanka and it’s pretty strong stuff (around 33 to 50%), the closest spirit I could compare it to is rum. The version I tried was not exactly top quality (it was consumed in one of Sri Lanka’s dingy little off license–cum–drinking halls) but there are some premium label arrack brands available now at a range of ages and grades, so I think a little cocktail experimentation will definitely be in order in the future.
The coconut wonder food called hoppers is a dish I discussed in my post on Sri Lankan breakfasts, they are delicious bowl-shaped pancakes, made from fermented coconut milk batter. The edges are paper thin and crispy, while the thick spongy middle works best when wrapped around an egg. I could happily eat egg hoppers every day of the week.
Pol roti is another staple of the Sri Lankan breakfast table; small flatbreads made from wheat flour and freshly grated coconut and sometimes embellished with flecks of onion and chilli. It’s a simple bread that gets the day off to a gentle start, but is usually brought to life with the addition of pol sambal (coconut sambal), more on that below.
Coconut of course, also makes a feature in many of Sri Lanka’s wonderfully fragrant curries. From freshly grated coconut to coconut milk and cream, adding a fresh, creamy richness to all curries, whether meat, fish or veg. Rice and curry is the staple dish found across the whole country.
On the sidelines
Pol sambal is an accompaniment served alongside both hoppers and pol roti and brings any dish into dazzling technicolour. Made from freshly grated coconut and a mixture of finely chopped tomatoes, onions, chillies and lime juice, coconut sambal delivers a deliciously flavour-packed smack in the face. Like a lot of Sri Lankan food, it’s gloriously unsubtle in its flavour combinations. Pol sambal also accompanies the ubiquitous rice and curry that is served as a main meal across Sri Lanka.
Mallum makes use of leafy green vegetables which are shredded and combined with grated coconut, onion, chilli and spices to make a bittersweet accompaniment to rice and curry. I loved the nutty, fresh texture of this dish and will definitely be trying out some recipes for it when I can get my hands on access to a kitchen and some freshly grated coconut.
Pani pol are thin pancakes, slightly thicker than crepes, stuffed with grated coconut which has been drenched in palm treacle and spiked with spices like cardamom and cloves. The pancake itself has a yellow tinge thanks to a pinch of turmeric added to the batter. Although I’ve put this in the sweet section, more often than not I ate these as a breakfast snack, finding them too irresistible to pass up when I spotted them being sold in a cafe or at a street stall. Pani pol and a cup of tea brings warmth and sunshine to the very dullest of days.
Watallapan is a syrupy flavoured custard dessert with a wobbly texture like flan or crème caramel, it’s made from coconut milk and eggs, mixed with kithul jaggery. Kithul jaggery is a sugar made from the sap collected from the kithul palm tree and boiled down to create a thick, superbly sweet syrup, which is left to set in empty coconut shells (ingenious coconut shell usage). The jaggery in watallapan adds a toffee-like rich flavour to the sweet treat.
Needless to say there are oodles more Sri Lankan coconut dishes I still need to discover in the future and for that I can’t wait.