Coconut is found in abundance all throughout the Maldives. The face of almost every island is decorated by the view of coconut palms standing above the lush vegetation. Maldives being in the tropics provides the perfect soil for coconut palms to grow. Coconut palm, which also grows wild, is the most commonly grown tree in the Maldives. Maldivians find all parts of the tree useful and it is considered a good resource to Maldivians.
The fruit that the coconut palm bears is considered a dry nut. It is ovoid in shape and comes with an inner stone covered by a fibrous husk. The endosperm or the thick, white meaty flesh of the coconut, lines inside the inner stone which is not easily broken. The endosperm surrounds the coconut water inside this inner stone.
Coconut is historically an important food source to Maldivians. The fruity part (the fleshy endosperm) of the coconut, coconut water and the milk and oil extracted from the kernel (endosperm) are all used as food. The milk and oil are very important for culinary purposes and therefore used in everyday lives of Maldivians.
Virgin coconut oil is extracted in large scale from over-ripe, dried coconut kernel (copra). The kernel separates from the stony shell when the water inside had dried up. In this state the kernel appear grayish white rather than white and no longer give milk but oil. To extract the oil, the copra is sundried and grated or grinded and boiled in water. Modern techniques of coconut oil extraction involve crushing the copra using machinery.
Coconut oil can also be yielded from coconut milk. Coconut milk is obtained by squeezing the grated kernel of coconut. The milk is then passed through a sieve and collected. It tastes sweet and is used in cooking curries and making desserts. When boiled, coconut milk thickens into oil which is used in cooking (e.g. for frying, in sauces etc). The oil turns into butter when it is kept for about three months. Traditionally, Maldivians used this butter, in place of the oil, in cooking.
For most curries made by Maldivians, they stir fry some red onion in a small bit of cooking oil. The cooking oil used for this purpose typically used to be coconut oil. The oily consistency of the local made curry paste, ‘havaadhu’, used in curries is achieved by the oil in the grated kernel used in the making of havaadhu. Without this oily consistency (which also brings about the flavor and taste of curries), the local made curries would not have been perfect.
In earlier days, coconut oil was used in lamps before electricity was available in the Maldives. Coconut oil is rich in glycerin and it is used to make soaps, shampoos, lotions creams etc. Soap making using coconut oil has a lot of potential in it. Before hair oils, creams and gels were introduced to Maldivians, coconut oil was used as hair oil. Women often used to rub or massage their hair with coconut oil (still some do in the islands) as it is believed to strengthen and prevent hair fall. Coconut oil which is found to be healthy, nourishing, hydrating and energizing is used in some resort spas.
The healing properties of coconut oil have been used by Maldivian for a long time. In earlier days coconut oil was used to ease pain and aches and in certain ailments. Coconut oil is still used as an ingredient in herbal, traditional medicines made in the country. It is used as it is on wounds and ulcers and rubbed on the skin as a remedy for itch. Coconut oil consists predominantly of medium-chained fatty acids making the oil a unique, healthy and nutritious food.