This one is for that heavenly drink that comes in green bundles – packaged by nature, served by your street corner nariyal paani walla. Widely spread across the sub-continent, the only common thing is the nomenclature – tender coconut. The similarities end there!
To start with there is the Sri Lankan variety – called King coconut. Bright orange in colour – like the rising sung – this large nut will easily quench the thirst of two people, and more. It is HUGE – king size. And intensely sweet. Its nothing like what is available in India. The malai or the flesh of the coconut is another treat – sweet and creamy (unless you opt for the mature nuts that have a thicker and tougher flesh), and a meal in itself.
Then there is the Indonesian variety, that I got to sample in Bali. The way the vendor opens the coconut is a work of art in itself. Four chops and the top does not fly off, like they do in Bangalore. Instead, off it comes in your hand like a lid off the tender coconut. The water tastes very similar to the ones in India, however, these are far larger and have probably thrice as much water. It appears that most firangs are not aware of the fact that the flesh of a coconut is edible – when we asked the vendor to remove the flesh for us, he simply handed us a spoon with a “help yourselves” look. Extracting the flesh with the spoon was naarikela paka, as referred to in Sanskrit literary circles, but it was abundant.
And there is the Bangkok variety. I am not sure if the vendor that I purchased it from had spiked it with alcohol, though he opened it in my presence, for it had a slightly fermented taste. It was not repulsive though – far from it, in fact. It was in a way, a voyage of discovery for the taste buds – a completely new taste and texture. Ah, how can I forget the texture – the water of the coconut had a velvety feel to it, not the creamy feel of the malai wala nariyal, or the watery feel of the paani wala nariyal. This was different – it was like the caress of the softest velvet. The flesh too retained the flavour, taste and texture of the water – though not as abundant as the King Coconut or the Balinese variety, it was more mature, thicker and tougher, but tasty nevertheless.
And now to the Indian variety – and how many of these are there! Right from the look and feel of the nut, to the way it is served and the taste – it differs across regions. First the Bangalore variety – large and bulky, you can opt for either the ganji (the equivalent of the Mumbaiya malai wala¸ or the variety with edible flesh) or neer (meaning paani wala, or watery one, with only the hard shell inside and no flesh) variety. It is cut open with powerful chops delivered with a large sickle that makes you look in awe at the dexterity of the vendor who does it with finesse, not harming a fingernail on his hands. The water in the ganji variety is sweet and that in the neer variety is flat, with a woody taste. This is common across regions – the more the flesh, the sweeter the water (and lesser in quantity!). The flesh is extracted in a similar fashion, by splitting the nut – shell coir and all – longitudinally, with the same power chops. A piece of the outer covering chopped off serves as a rudimentary scoop. Then there is the Mumbai variety. Smaller in size than the Bangalore variety, there are two sub-varieties, depending on the source of the nut. There is the Alibaug nut and there is the Gujarat nut. The Gujarat nuts are sweeter – with even the paani wala varieties being sweeter than in the rest of the country. The Alibaug nut has a flatter taste. In Mumbai, the nuts are opened with a very sharp kitchen knife; the tougher shell is cracked with a flat strip of iron a couple of millimeters thick. The small opening at the top is enlarged and a piece of the outer covering cut out to form an improvised scoop is used to extract the flesh through this opening. Did I say that the paani wala variety does not have edible flesh? Well, for those who like it, the shell of this variety of nuts has a crunchy layer, that can be cut and stripped with a knife – it tastes somewhat like the flesh of a raw singhada, with a woody tinge. Its supposed to be good for digestion and yes, I love it.
So its not for no reason that the coconut tree is called the kalpavriksha – the tree that grants all desires; I would go one step further – this is the tree that gives life – quenching the wayfarer’s thirst with drink and fruit.