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)Ingredients:2 cups freshly grated coconut*1 1/2 cups sugar3/4 cup waterpowdered cardamom (from 4 pods)2 tbsp gheeMethod:*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.