Travel agencies plaster pastiches of the tropical paradise as window display— azure skies, soft golden sand, caressing waves (during the low tide of course) and a vast beach devoid of any flotsam or jetsam. Except for coconuts. From a lone coconut tree. Arching at a forty-five degree angle towards the ocean. The trunk of the tree is rugged and coarse, sturdy enough to occasionally hold a hammock or some swing-like contraption (with hordes of sun worshipers testing the strength of the rope, little wonder why the tree aches at forty-five degrees). The palm leaves are crisp and sharp, glistening emerald green, complementing the cyan of the waters a few feet below. Any hint of rotting brown is photoshopped away. The remaining trees are cropped out from the frame, hidden from view. Only the anomaly is chosen. The coconut tree is the go-to flora for depicting the tropics — abundant, iconic and extremely versatile.
The coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) is a member of the Arecaceae family or the palm family. The term coconut is derived from the 16th-century Portuguese and Spanish word coco meaning "head" or “skull". In Malay (one of four official languages in Singapore), the coconut is called “kelapa” which is a syllable switch away from “kepala” which is the Malay word for “head”. We are in linguistic agreement then; the coconut resembles the human head. In-depth analysis reveals that the interior of the coconut drupe is fairly hollow, surrounded by coconut flesh and coconut “water” whilst the interior of the human head is figuratively hollow, filled with brain mush and neuro fluids. Again, not so different.
- Rich, Wealthy
- A jam made from coconut, eggs, pandan leaves and sugar.
According to J.V. Dennis and C.R. Gunn (Economic Botany 25, 1971), the coconut is indigenous to the Indo-Malaysian region where Singapore is located. Singapore used to have an army of coconut trees, coast to coast. That is, if you believe the vintage photos of the island state when it was a smattering of fishing villages. Today, these kampungs that were used to house the masses can be best described (euphemistically) as “quaint”. Stilts of all heights serve as foundations for the village. One by one, they protrude out of the shore, grasping onto flat planks of wood. Using barely any nails (or modern conveniences) the floor is made out of rattan-bound planks and logs. Often, the rest of the house is built with rickety wood and an attap roof serves as a shelter from the elements. Each kampung has a bouncy makeshift gangway to the beach and coconut growth serves as the backyard garden. “Updated” modern versions of these villages can be found in 5 star tropical resorts, appropriated for places like the Soneva Fushi in the Maldives.
Today, the major growth in Singapore are skyscrapers, not coconuts. For the coconut, Singapore is no longer sun, sand, sea, and space. However, coconuts are strong swimmers. They can cover distances as long as 3000 miles. Often alone, out at sea, the coconuts will search for the sanctuary of land. Surfing in with the tide, an illegal immigrant that seeks refuge, a coconut hopes to grow roots into crumbling sand. The alternative is to be massacred by the machete.
Kaya: There are two main versions of the Kaya jam. The better one, in my not so humble opinion, is the Nonya or Peranakan (Straits-Chinese) version. Thanks to the copious amount of pandan leaves used, the jam emits a sweet delightful fragrance that is only rivalled by the sumptuous green of the jam. Only fresh coconuts should be used but you can use the packets if you are feeling blasphemous.
Weeks before the Lunar New Year, the markets transform into hives of activity with hordes of homemakers out in full force to purchase the freshest produce so as to showcase their prowess in the kitchen. Lunar New Year was a time for visiting relatives (near and distant) who you do not really care for so that aunties can compare their children’s examination results or career success, cousins can make awkward conversations, seniors can gripe about the lack of unity in the family and the rest of the family can stare blankly at the TV while popping homemade New Year snacks. As Peranakans, we often made the best goodies. My grandmother, mum, and I joined the mob in the market and looked for pineapples and star anises, cinnamon and sugar, eggs and cloves, flour and coconut. The coconut vendor was a sinewy Indian lady. Her sari, once vibrant and colourful in hues of crimson, green and gold, had lost its splendour. Maybe this was why she wore it for work. Maybe it was because of work. In front of her were hundreds of coconuts, spilled all over the store mostly in red plastic pails. A coconut grating machine sat prominently on a discoloured metal cabinet. The contraption was a metal monster (think Tasmanian devil not Godzilla) that would decimate coconut slices into grated flesh. She switched on the machine and it coughed and sputtered into life, whirring in anticipation. As she raised her machete, my mom interrupted her. In Malay she said, “Choose the juiciest ones.” The vendor made a little head bob and went about her business. In a matter of minutes, we had fresh coconut flesh to squeeze coconut cream and milk from.
Coconut vendors are now a thing of the past. The supermarkets now provide pre-packed grated coconut and packets of coconut cream. Baking Lunar New Year snacks is also a practice slowly forgotten. The supermarkets now sell factory made goodies and biscuits.
Kaya: The Kaya jam is often used as a spread on charcoal-grilled white bread and is often eaten with two half boiled eggs and a cup of freshly made coffee. This meal is synonymous with a cost effective breakfast in a coffee shop in Singapore. However, with chain store coffee shops, the meal can now be eaten at any time of the day.
Kaya (usage in Singapore colloquial English or Singlish): “The only reason they are so kaya is because they only care about money and nothing else.”
Singapore has significantly less coconuts trees. The skyline gleams sliver; it no longer shrouds green. The island has grown larger and smaller at the same time. We are strong swimmers. We swim in a sea of hustle and bustle, our heads bobbing for space, for air. Sometimes, we swim against the tide. Most of the time, the tide dictates. Pity there is not enough sand to sink your roots anymore.