September 18, 2009

Thengai or Coconut Barfi (Cardamom Flavoured Sweet Coconut Squares)

My home state of Kerala is really a land of coconut trees, not just ayurveda, the backwaters and the rest of it. While there still is some disagreement as to the origin of the name, the general view is that Kerala comes from the words "Keram" (which in vernacular means coconuts) and "Alam" (which means land or territory). Even if this wasn't true, I would say this argument holds for the sheer abundance of coconut trees throughout the state visible as far as the eye can see and beyond!

So it should come as no surprise that the coconut has an all pervading influence and presence in our cuisine, irrespective of community or religion. In fact, the coconut and the tree features in most aspects of our lives, then and now.

The coconut shells are fashioned into bowls, ladles and other items of utility or decoration. The husk is an excellent potting medium and also used to make coir for ropes, baskets and mats.
Coconut flowers/ inflorescence are an important part of traditional ceremonies including weddings. The buds yield a sweet liquid which is fermented and made into toddy (or arrack) and to make coconut vinegar.

Coconut leaves are woven to thatch roofs, mats, hand-held fans, fruit baskets, traditional umbrellas, brooms, etc.
The wood of the coconut tree is very hardy and durable and makes excellent furniture and construction material.

Tender coconut water and the soft creamy flesh are particular favourites and perfect for our hot and humid summers. The coconut and coconut milk are used up to cook some very tasty fare, as those who have tried it would tell you. The traditional cooking medium was coconut oil and it still lends flavour to many traditional dishes which would be lacking something without it.

I know the coconut, its milk and oil are considered "unhealthy" in today's world but I have to mention that the generations before ours survived on coconut based cuisines without too many problems. In fact, the coconut does feature extensively in Ayurveda for its medicinal and rejuvenating qualities.

I would think that it is quite likely that our increasingly sedentary lifestyle with all its excesses, processed and packaged foods and not the coconut that is largely to blame for some fat intake related health concerns, but I am not about to start an argument on this here.

Having written so much about the coconut, I now present a traditional sweet in which coconut is the main ingredient. The coconut burfi is one more sweet which is typical of Palakkad Iyer cuisine as well.

A burfi is a sweet squarish or diamond shaped bite sized Indian confection in which sugar is used to not only as a sweetener but also as a binder of the ingredients. This somewhat fudge like sweet is mostly festive or celebratory fare and comes in a mind boggling variety of flavours and colours depending on which part of India one is in.

I have seen many variations of this sweet with the addition of other ingredients including nuts and colour. The traditional coconut burfi however contains no additions beyond the following ingredients.

Thengai or Coconut Barfi (Cardamom Flavoured Sweet Coconut Squares)


2 cups freshly grated coconut*

1 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 cup water

powdered cardamom (from 4 pods)

2 tbsp ghee


*If you are using freshly scraped/ grated coconut, make sure the brown part does not scraped/ grated as well. This will produce brown flecks in a burfi which should be pristine white! As you can see from my picture, I wasn't careful enough to take this piece of advice, myself!!

You may also run the coconut (as it is) a couple of times in your mixer/ blender or food processor to make the grated coconut a bit finer (do not grind it very fine). This will also make your coconut burfis look smoother when cut and less rustic looking.
I personally prefer the rustic look, as you can see from my burfi/ coconut square. This traditional way also makes juicier burfis. It's a matter of personal preference which way one goes.

Place the sugar and water in a thick walled/ heavy bottom pan. Over medium heat, stir till the sugar dissolves completely and starts boiling. Keep stirring frequently and let the sugar syrup cook and thicken till it reaches 2-string consistency.

Since most kitchens in India (even now) do not use candy thermometers, we tend to use the cold water candy test method. And "string/ thread" consistencies are the first stages of sugar syrup.

To check for 2-string consistency, put a couple of drops of the sugar syrup on your index finger (make sure it has cooled slightly, but still warm, or you will burn your finger). Bring your thumb down to lightly touch the sugar syrup. Lift your thumb away from your finger and the syrup will form threads. If 2 or 3 threads (one thick thread is not enough) form and break, the syrup is at the right consistency.

If this consistency isn't reached, your burfi can end up becoming soft and fudgy. If your syrup passes this stage, the burfi will be dry and not quite hold together. At the correct consistency, the burfi would hold its shape well while being a bit soft and juicy when bitten into.

When the sugar syrup has reached the desired consistency, add the grated coconut and stir well. The mixture will take on a slightly wet look from the milk in the coconut. Continue cooking the mixture stirring constantly, till it thickens quite a bit and the edges start looking white and take on a frothy appearance. At this point the mixture will be thick and somewhat dry looking. Don't worry, it will stay together.

Add the ghee and cardamom powder and stir well. Take the pan off the heat and pour the mixture into a 7" by 7" square pan/ cake tin which has been greased with ghee. Press down (not very hard but enough to pack the mixture into the tin) and level the mixture with a greased flat spatula or the back of a spoon or even the underside of a greased flat bowl.

Allow to cool and harden a bit. Cut into 16 small squares.
If you plan to keep this beyond 3 or 4 days, then please refrigerate the burfi, in an airtight container, after it has cooled.


♥♥♥Ria♥♥♥ said...

This is my dad's fave!! Even I love it!

Jayashree said...

Looks perfect, Aparna. Iam usually never patient enough to make sure that I scrape only the white i end up adding a little bit of food colour to make up for the lack of whiteness.

jayasree said...

One of my fave sweets. My appa is an expert in grating coconuts for this.

sra said...

I've heard that the palmolein lobby ganged up to give coconut oil a bad name and did it in! I ate this recently when a friend made this for Gokulashtami.

Aparna said...

Didn't know that Sra. That's funny because the palmolein we get here is so refined, I don't think there's much that's good in it anyways.

Sushma Mallya said...

That looks delicious aparna...

MeetaK said...

just the perfect kind of indulgence. love the flavors!

Srivalli said...

That looks so perfect Aparna..must have been so very tasty!..I thought the party ended?..oh must check again..thanks..:)

Muneeba said...

I don't listen to anyone who says coconut is unhealthy! Being a Pakistani I grew up in a household that never used coconut in its savory cooking ... but since living on my own & experimenting, I LOVE Kerala cuisine, and using coconut for all sorts of sweets and curries. This barfi looks great .. making my mouth water!

Avanika [YumsiliciousBakes] said...

I love coconut desserts! I just made a middle-eastern coconut treat :) This looks great, it must taste great too, with all the flavors!

Marillyn Beard said...

Looks delicious! I love coconuts, especially coconut treats like that! I actually don't mind the brown flecks. Gives it character :o)

kahliyalogue said...

I totally agree,the brown specks give a natural look,and your barfi looks exquisite!
What a lovely treat! I am confident that this wonderful produce of our loving earth brings us healthy virtues aswell as pleasure! :) Mia

Palidor said...

Coconut barfi is my favorite kind! It looks delicious.

Soma said...

Coconut trees hold a solid place in Bengal too. These coconut barfis or laddoos are something that i am planning to do for the longest time now & didn't. your pictures & the the post is going to push me to do it.

Parita said...

This is my brothers favorite :)

Anita said...

I still remember out Social Studies lesson on Kerala - it was all about the importance of the coconut tree in the life of Kerala and how every part of the tree finds use!

I make this barfi on Janmashtmi, adding some khoya for additinal richness! - very very yum. And perfect indulgence for the sweet tooth at the party! Thanks for coming, Aparna!

Shabs.. said...

Wuh, that looks so gorgeous!! I thought that brown speckles added to the beauty, even if u did it unintentionally...I dont think/remember having these, but ur description has made my mouth water enough!!yum yum...I was just going to ask u about string consistency. Thx for explaining that alot. I knew it, but i forgot and was thinking how will i get to know that...Keep up the gud work.

Amy said...

Yum! I love all things coconut and this is no exception. I actually think that coconut is quite healthy - it provides quick energy and is easily processed by the body. Of course, it must be in it's natural, but I think luckily more and more of us are catching on to this and benefitting from it's deliciousness.

Curry Leaf said...

Yum,Lovely,simple and yummilicious.Great post and tempting click Aparna.Advanced Navarathri wishes

Aparna said...

Jayashree, neither am I. I'm not very fond of garting coconuts! So I just tell myself the colour contarts provided by the speck looks pretty. :)
You gals just said it, Marillyn and Mia.

No Srivalli. you just might be in time for the party.

Muneeba, cocnut is something special to me. :) I had a Pakistani friend in college and she used to love my mum's coconut curries too.

Bengal has a lot in common with Kerala. :)
Waiting to see your coconut treats.

Khoys would make it taste even better, Anita. Milk and coconut....

Thank you, Shabs. And I'm with you there, Amy.

Indhu said...

this is one of my favourite sweets... love your picture... I have a question though... can we use pre-packaged grated coconut available in the grocery stores in U.S?

Aparna said...

Thank you, Indhu.
We don't get pre-packaged grated coconut here so I really have no idea.
If that coconut is somewhat moist like freshly grated coconut, it should be fine. But if it is like dessicated (dried) coconut then I'm not sure it would work.
Perhaps you could check with someone you know there or a blogger who lives in the U.S.

rk said...

You have a beautiful blog! Will definitely try this quick version of kobbari mithai (kannada word for this sweet). As for Aparna's question, yes, the frozen coconut (freshly grated and frozen) from desi stores works and it's completely white. I use that here in the US. Try a few diff brands as some have an odor sometimes.

Srividya Padmanabhan said...


I have a problem, i guess i put the coconut early - jus as the sugar began to boil. As a result it turned soggy.
Any suggestions how to resolve it ?