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Madame Mahsa Travels

The one superfood Sri Lankans can't live without

SRI LANKA | Monday, 6 July 2015 | Views [1598]

If you're a foodie chances are you've tried (pfft, led) most of the recent superfood trends. A kale smoothie for brekky? Or perhaps you fancy a quinoa salad for lunch? For most Sri Lankans though, there's just one superfood ingredient they rely on – the tropical coconut – and their traditional island fare is all the better for it.  

On my first day in Sri Lanka I travelled with Bala, my local guru, to the north west coast of the island to learn about home-style cooking from a seemingly ordinary Sri Lankan family. Turns out the region, much like the family, were far from mundane. 

Chilaw is coconut heaven. Coconut plantations are ubiquitous in this part of town and for many locals in the region (known as the Coconut Triangle), growing coconuts is their livelihood. But it wasn't until I stepped out into this family's backyard that I realised just how much coconuts meant to this local Chilaw clan.

There was a coconut 'station' at every corner of their land.

Coconut fibres to make rope

At one end, a young woman was feeding coconut fibres through a twisting machine to make hundreds and hundreds of metres of coconut husk rope. I wanted to get close enough to see all the rope action (yep, rope machines are kinda cool) but Bala stopped me from doing anything stupid, like touching something and ending up as twisty rope myself.

When I looked up I noticed the machines were housed under a handmade shelter also made from coconut tree leaves. Across the other side, there was another shelter, housing a wood fire station. A large cauldron filled with the sap from the coconut tree was bubbling away, turning the liquid into a coconut syrup.  

And then there was this guy.

Coconut tapper scaling a treeLocal tapper walks between coconut trees

The family tapper. A scrawny, limber old man wearing loose-fitted clothing and sporting what looked like a plastic shower cap on his head, whose job was to scale the coconut trees to collect the natural sap from the young coconut flower. I'd seen locals scale trees for coconuts before, but not like this; not so Circus-slash-Tarzan-esque. Before I could snap anything but a blurry picture of him, he'd moved up the tree to reach his first destination, collected the pot that was filling up with sap, carefully but swiftly walked across a tightrope to the next tree to collect what he could, and scaled down the tree back to us mere mortals. 

I tried the sap, fresh from the tree. it was a white liquid that was sweet and lukewarm. I thought it was a little tangy as well. Once fermented, the drink turns alcoholic and is known as toddy, a traditional beverage in Sri Lanka thought to date back 2000 years. 

Inside, I was given a quick demo on how to shave coconut flesh with a manual coconut grater, and watched on as the family made traditional rotti and pol sambal, which is a heavenly shredded coconut and chilli side dish. 

Sri Lankan cuisine isn't complete without coconut cream and milk, and this is made by squeezing shredded coconut meat or flesh with some still water. The first extraction is called the 'first milk', which is creamier, and used as a thickening agent in curries. The second extraction contains more water and added to anything from curries, to milk rice dishes, to desserts. There's no waste in the Sri Lankan kitchen, so any leftover coconut shavings are fed to cows or used as a cleaning agent.

Coconut kiosks line Sri Lankan streets

You'll also find that the streets of Sri Lanka are lined with kiosks selling the orange 'king' coconut, which produces sweeter tasting coconut water. The locals are quick to tell you that the king coconut has medicinal benefits and Sri Lankans guzzle down a few of them every day. The green and mature coconuts, on the other hand, are more commonly used in cooking. 

While many travellers will head across to Kandy or down south to Colombo and Galle, it would be a foodie sin to miss out on experiencing some of these highlights in the coconut triangle yourself. So, if you want to get off the beaten track and taste the local fare be sure to make time for Chilaw and the north western provinces of Sri Lanka. 

Tags: chilaw, coconuts, cooking, food tour, king coconut, sambal, sri lanka, superfoods, tapper, toddy

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