The name coconut comes from the Portuguese, cocos, meaning a grimacing face, such as that on a jack o’ lantern made from a turnip or pumpkin, and makes reference to the monkey face of the coconut, with three eyes or indentations in the shell, and the ‘hair.’ Nuciferus means nut-bearing. It is native to the Pacific region and is and has been widely used throughout South Asia as food and medicine, as well as for religious purposes.  Coconut palms are referred to in Indian writings dating back to the 4th century BC and were in Tamil literature from the 1st to 4th century AD. They feature in the Hindu epics, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas, and are sacred to the god Shiva having three eyes as he is often depicted as having. The coconut was adopted into Aryan rituals later, and so scholars believe that they were introduced into northern India later being they were familiar in the south of the country first. The coconut was known as “sriphala” and the fruit of the gods, so it was forbidden to cut the coconut palms. In India the coconut symbolizes absolute usefulness, selfless service, generosity and prosperity. The trees are believed to be able to grant all wishes. It is used in rituals such as marriage ceremonies, and for temple offerings to various deities, and in ceremonies for installing a household deity. The flesh of the coconut is sanctified in these ceremonies and then, being so blessed by the gods (prasad), shared amongst the guests. In fishing communities in southern India coconuts are thrown into the sea to appease the sea gods so that the fishermen have peaceful trips out to sea.
   All the parts of the coconut palm are used, either in medicine, for food or for making decorative items or those that have a domestic purpose. The midrib of the leaves is used to make brooms, while there is a cottage industry in areas where the trees flourish, plaiting the leaves for thatching for homes and sheds and for basket weaving.
  Palm hearts form the tips of the tree are the heaviest of all palm hearts and can weigh up to 12 kilos. The juice is tapped from the coconut flower stalks and given to people suffering from fevers or diarrhoea and dysentery. The seeds, roots and flowers are made into pastes, infusions and ointments for medicinal purposes to treat a variety of ailments and are used for burns and skin irritations among other things.
  The white meat and water from the nut is used for heart problems, dysentery, fevers, to quench thirst, as a diuretic and for urinary tract infections, and as an aphrodisiac. In Ayurvedic medicine the coconut is used to increase sperm count, and to rehydrate the body. To treat diarrhoea in traditional medicine, the oil from the coconut is mixed with other ingredients and rubbed on the stomach to stop diarrhoea. Oil extracted after boiling coconut milk is antiseptic and soothing and used on burns and ringworm as well as to stop itching. Modern medical research has supported these uses of oil. The oil is also applied to the scalp to encourage hair growth and prevent grey hairs appearing.
   Coconut oil is also used in cosmetics as a moisturizer to prevent signs of ageing and to moisturize the skin. Mixed with sugar it is used to exfoliate the skin and remove dead skin cells, thus rejuvenating the complexion.
  The sweet sap( called ‘toddy’ in India)which the tree exudes from its unopened flowering branches tapped is boiled to make gur or jaggery which in turn is converted to a strong alcoholic beverage.
  Shampoo is made with coconut oil which is boiled with lemon juice to take away the smell of coconut and is then mixed with jasmine water. The roots of the palm are traditionally made into toothpaste and frayed to make toothbrushes, rather like walnut tree bark is used in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
   In the Pacific Islands, the coconut palm is called the “Tree of Life” and is a cure-all. Its parts are used to cure STDs such as gonorrhea, and for a multitude of other diseases including earache, flu, malnutrition, scabies, jaundice, menstrual cramps and irregular periods, to kill lice and internal parasites, , to cure TB and diabetes.
  Modern medical research into the benefits of coconut oil and its other products has been extensive and it is believed that the oil is unique, and currently research is underway to investigate its benefits for HIV sufferers and it anti-inflammatory effects. It is believed that it has potent anti-microbial and anti viral properties and so it may be useful to combat the common cold, herpes, flu and a whole host of other diseases. It would seem that it may indeed warrant the name “The Tree of Life.” It has no harmful effects, and has been found to reduce inflammation, improve insulin secretion and aids digestion and the absorption of nutrients by the body.  
  The coconut meat and water supply the body with energy and boost the immune system.
The meat and water from the nut (which is a seed) contain amino acids, vitamins A, C, D, E, and K as well as a number of B-complex ones. As for minerals it is potassium rich, contains iron, calcium, phosphorous, copper, magnesium, and selenium.
   Here in Pakistan we eat a lot of the dried fruit or copra, and put it in desserts such as Carrot Halva. Coconuts are sold on barrows in the bazaar and so is coconut water to quench one’s thirst on blisteringly hot summer days. They are often accompanied by red carrot sticks, which make an eye-catching contrast to the white meat of the coconut.
   Coconut oil can be used in cooking as well as in medicine, and is also used as a body oil. After the oil has been extracted the coconut ‘cake’ or residue is fed to cattle. Coconut shells are used to make decorative items- you’ve probably seen the monkey figures made from the hollow shells, and they are also burned to get charcoal and to make ladles and other household and decorative items. Coconut wood is used to make wall panels, furniture, windows and doors and decorative items. Virtually nothing of the palm goes to waste.
  If you don’t know how to open a coconut you need a hammer and a long nail and should hammer the nail into one or all of the three indentations or eyes which are the shell’s weakest points. Allow the water to drain out over a bowl before you use the hammer to crack then shell to get at the white meat.
   You can buy desiccated coconut in packets, and reconstitute it to make coconut water, but it isn’t as good as the real thing straight from the shell.
   The recipe below is for a “chutney” which is a coconut sauce, and good with steamed rice cakes, or as an accompaniment to chicken or fish dishes.

½ coconut, white meat grated
½ inch piece of ginger root
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tbsps urad daal (yellow lentils)
salt to taste
2 tbsps oil

Put the coconut meat, ginger and green chillies in a grinder and grind.
Heat the oil in a small pan and when it is hot add the mustard seeds, curry leaves, red chillies and the lentils, Fry until the lentils turn brown and the chillies are very red.
Remove from the heat and add the coconut paste and salt.
This has Taste and is a Treat.

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