No Worries Curries Blog: South India

The Coconut: Its Uses in Indian Culture and Cuisine

By Conchita de Souza

The Coconut: Its Uses in Indian Culture and Cuisine

Not exactly a fruit nor a nut, the coconut sits almost between both classifications but leaning more towards the  former than the latter. It is in fact a drupe (a word which sounds like a mythical creature from a Harry Potter novel), a term used to classify stone fruits and under which peaches and nectarines, but also oddly, blackberries and raspberries fall. 

For many of us, the sight of coconut trees standing tall against the blue skies is synonymous with tropical travel, white sandy beaches and a mojito (or any beverage of your choice) awaiting us by the shore. For me, it speaks of a home away from home in the land of my ancestors called Goa. This small state is located on India’s west coast, where coconut trees are found in abundance, only to be rivalled in quantity by the southern state of Kerala, which literally means ‘land of the coconuts’. 

Coconut Trees

Skies full of coconut trees in Varkala, south Kerala

In India (and in other countries abounding in coconut), almost every part of the coconut and the coconut tree are used lovingly; the fruit, the nut, the shell and the leaves all serve their purpose. It comes as no surprise that the word for coconut in Sanskrit is kalpavriksha, which means ‘the tree providing the necessities of life’. In terms of its documented history, it dates back as far as 3000 BC and is mentioned in the ancient post-Vedic text called the Mahabharata.

Today, we look at some of the ways coconut has become part and parcel in the lives of Indians.*

Health & Beauty

Indians had used the coconut centuries before the Western world (recently) discovered its benefits. In the south of India, it is not uncommon to see the hair of girls, boys, women and men well-coated with coconut oil, which acts as a natural conditioner. Women from the south are renowned for their thick, dark and luscious locks attributed in some part to genetics, but also to the frequent application of coconut oil from birth. 

My mother used to apply coconut oil to my hair in the mornings before I washed it off in the evenings. It is a practice I continue until today, sometimes leaving the oil in overnight for better absorption. 

Coconut oil contains moisturising properties which makes it popular for use in hair and skin care products. It can be applied directly to the body like a lotion and contains antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It works well if you suffer from dry skin, especially in the winters (yours truly knows well) and can mend chapped lips too. Now you are probably wondering - ‘Is there anything that this plant can’t do?’

I won’t delve much further into the medicinal uses of coconut, but I will mention a few things. The water of the coconut tastes sweet when it is tender, but also has anti-dehydration properties which replenishes electrolytes far more effectively than your average sports drink. Tender coconut water is high in important minerals like calcium, magnesium (for the heart) and potassium (for the muscles). 


"Coconut provides five types of food products: Coconut water, coconut milk, sugar, oil and ‘meat’," or ‘flesh’ as it is also known (Ahuja 2014). 

In the south of India, coconut flesh is consumed in a variety of ways - it is ground and made into a chutney, often with the addition of tempered whole spices and used as accompaniments to dosa, idly and vada. In Kerala, Avial is a popular vegetable stew prepared usually with coconut milk that goes well with appam ( a pancake made from fermented rice batter and coconut milk). The Kerala chicken curry also incorporates coconut milk.

In Goa, many curries contain coconut milk at its base, such as Xacuti or Maas Kodi. Even sanas (rice cakes) are prepared using rice flour and coconut milk and they are enjoyed with a sorpotel (spicy pork curry). When vegetables are cooked with minimal spice and a dash of dessicated coconut, it is known as foogath and we have a recipe for pumpkin foogath on our website. Even the sweets of Goa aren’t spared from coconut’s outreach - Bebinc and Dos are two of Goa’s most popular sweets with the former containing coconut milk and the latter, ground coconut. Another favourite tea-time cake and popular during the Christmas season is baath, to which generous amounts of desiccated coconut are added. 

The flower clusters of the coconut release a juice, which once fermented, produces a local brew known as toddy or coconut palm wine. 


The dry coconut forms an essential element in rituals, ceremonies and festivities amongst Hindus. They are always used in offerings to God and any pooja (prayer) without coconut seems almost incomplete. Coconuts are smashed open whenever there is an initiation into, or inauguration of something new, like the opening of a new building. 

In Goa, the groom and bride, in their respective homes, participate in a ceremony called a roce, where they are both blessed by well wishers who, one by one, apply coconut milk to their skin. The idea was that the coconut milk would cleanse the skin of the bride and groom so that they would have a beautiful and clear complexion for their wedding day. Nowadays, the roce has become an event for relatives and friends to douse the bride or groom with coconut milk and have a blast whilst doing so. Click here to see a typical Goan roce in amongst the Catholic community. 


Surprisingly, coconut shells are useful for many things other than from bikini tops delicately strung on the chests of dancing island girls. You may have noticed that the shell of a dried coconut is encased in a husk. This husk produces a fibre called ‘coir’ that is highly resistant to salt water and can be used in the manufacture of ropes, mattresses, brushes and brooms, just to name a few examples. The shells can be treated and used as bowls and utensils, with beautiful carvings engraved into them. Unused shells make good flammable material for an outdoor stove fire. 

The palms of the coconut are handy for creating shelter and can be weaved and thatched to create handicrafts like mats or baskets. The bark of the tree is white ant resistant, and therefore is very useful in construction, especially when making rafters.

If you weren’t aware of this amazing plant’s ability to give, I am sure that after reading this, you will have a newfound appreciation for the immense utility that the coconut has offered humanity since the beginning. 

*Ahuja, SC (2014) Coconut - History, Uses & Folklore, Asian Agri-History,18(3):221-248 - this was a very helpful resource in putting together this post. 

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The Heat of Hyderabadi Cuisine in the Cool of the Indian Monsoon

By Claudette D'Cruz

The Heat of Hyderabadi Cuisine in the Cool of the Indian Monsoon

I must say that when it comes to the hot summer days in Sydney (which seem quite distant right now as we are smack bang in the middle of autumn), I welcome nothing more than the stormy evenings that follow which settle the dust and temper the heat’s rage.  Whilst Australian summers can be hot, it really is nothing compared to summers in most parts of India which involve three months of unceasing, unforgiving and relenting 40+ degree heat. The night brings enough relief for our burnt souls to slumber before we wake the next day to face summer’s wrath.  Until one has lived through an entire Indian summer, one really cannot appreciate the relief that the monsoon rains bring.  The weather becomes pleasant, albeit a tad humid; the landscape becomes green and lush (which unfortunately the mosquitoes seem to enjoy and hence begin their season of breeding); and most importantly, the appetite increases sevenfold as the tastebuds start to crave.  They crave anything remotely hot, spicy, crispy and creamy (sometimes all at once) after being subdued by the summer’s stifling heat and being released from the want of all things icy, liquid and juicy.

It was during this climate that I explored the famous cuisines of Hyderabad; with the skies grey, low and impregnated by the drops of monsoon rains, now in its second month of falling on to parched earth.  Hyderabad is the capital city of Telangana, a state which was recently formed in 2014.  Before that, Hyderabad had long been under the rule of the Nizams - the Monarchs who were once a part of the Mughal Empire, but declared themselves independent after the Empire collapsed in 1724. The Nizams ruled over Hyderabad until it was annexed during an Indian military operation post Indian independence in 1948.  When you travel throughout the city, there are remnants of this rule in the ancient landmarks as well as in the customs, cultures and feel of this bustling city.

One weekend I wandered through the old city of Hyderabad which sports the iconic landmark which has become synonymous with Hyderabad - Charminar.  It was not my first visit to this beautiful place, but I had still gone with my camera in hand, ready to capture the culinary delights as much as the magnificent architecture.  I visited a famous restaurant called Shahran, just outside one of the four gateways leading to Charminar. It is known for its delicious and crispy samosas and also its beef kebab served with peanut chutney and hot, oily, and soft parathas (click here for our simple stuffed paratha recipe).  I could not go past ordering a pink falooda, a popular drink made from rosewater, milk and vermicelli.  Not too far from Shahran is the famous Nimrah Bakery, which always has a crowd of people inside and outside the joint. Nimrah Bakery has a very simple menu of chai, various biscuits and puffs - it is basically a tea spot.  I squeezed myself into a booth joining a family of four messily slurping their tea and munching on their biscuits.  I ordered Suleimani chai (strong black tea) and Osmani biscuits - yet another (edible) symbol of Hyderabad.  These biscuits are buttery and subtly sweet at first bite but once they leave your tongue they part with mild salty taste - similar to that of a cracker.  They go darn well with chai and are a popular take-back gift for most visitors to Hyderabad.  I’ll unashamedly admit that I returned to Nimrah Bakery the following week for the same Osmani biscuits this time accompanied with a sweeter and milky Irani Chai.  It was divine, as expected.

Charminar literally means 'four minarets' and is surrounded by amazing food spots offering a variety of Hyderabadi specialities.

Hyderabad is also famous for its biryani - a festive dish made from a spicy, flavoursome and thick gravy containing meat (popular choices are mutton and chicken) which is absorbed by fragrant and colourful basmati rice.  Paradise Restaurant is said to serve some of the  best biryani dishes in Hyderabad and it is so famous that there are road signs directing people towards it (which I dutifully followed to reach the said destination)!  This time round, I went to Paradise for their range of delectable kebabs (mutton shami and garlic chicken) which are always served with green chutney, lemon wedges and raw onions just because life is a lot tastier with all these three ingredients.

You might be wondering when this ode to Hyderabadi cuisine will draw to an end, and I would like to politely inform you that it shall, soon, but not without mention of one last iconic dish, Dosa.  Dosa is a staple in south India and is differently prepared and consumed throughout the south (we have an instant dosa version that you can try out without the fuss right here). In Hyderabad, I was introduced to the ‘butter cheese dosa’ by a local friend.  It kind of tastes like a thinner, crispier and spicier version of pizza.  When I first watched the street vendor make the dosa right in front of me, I was alarmed by the copious amounts of ghee, butter and cheese he so liberally lashed out. As soon as I took my first bite, the alarm melted away at the same rate as the cheese in my dosa did (it was fast, very fast). I must warn you that this butter cheese dosa is deceptively heavy and might result in the unfortunate skipping of your next meal.  But seeing as I was still in Hyderabad and had much more to do (read - eat), I wasn’t too concerned by just how satiated I was and wobbled along before the rains reached their point of wrath.

If you have fallen in love with Hyderabad’s rich cuisine but can’t just as yet afford the air ticket to get there, we’ve got you covered.  You can bring the flavours of Hyderabad to your kitchen with a little help from our naturally-blended and authentic spices.  Try making our baked Hyderabadi Koftas (Baked Meatballs) or if you are feeling like a feast - our rich Biryani, all from the comfort of your kitchen.

By Conchita A. de Souza

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