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Toddy, Coconut Honey & Palm Trees: A Maldivian Love Story

Authentic stories about the lives of quintessential Maldivians across the Maldives, exclusively brought to readers by The Edition.

Rae Munavvar
27 January 2019, MVT 09:18
Toddy tapper Ali Abdurrahman and his wife, Haseena Ali, pose for a picture. PHOTO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA/THE EDITION
Rae Munavvar
27 January 2019, MVT 09:18

It is a somber day in the Lily Night household located at the very heart of Gan, Laamu Atoll, as The Edition crew arrived to chat with its occupants. However, the busy lives of the bustling family, must find a way to go on. It is the very picture of strength, courage and resilience – a very proud and endearing Maldivian quality.

Two coconut trees stand tall in the backyard, affixed with rungs, which Ali Abdurrahman, reffered throughout the town by the moniker Ayyube, climbs daily with his Bandhi (pot to collect the liquid). The inflorescence, or cluster of palm flowers, are tied to a ‘Raa Rui’ and is used to collect toddy, known as ‘Ruku Raa’ in the Maldives.

Toddy, Coconut Honey & Palm Trees: A Maldivian Love Story. VIDEO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA / THE EDITION

Toddy tapping or ‘Ruh erun’ is one of the oldest professions in Maldives, even having sprung forth its own form of literature. It is a skill traditionally passed from father to son, though Ayyube’s children do not necessarily follow suit.

In the early part of the 20th Century, a ‘Raiveriya’ played one of the leading roles in the Maldivian economy, particularly amongst the southern region of Maldives. Today, however, it has become a rather lost art form and makes hardly the coin that it used to as well.

The toddy itself is used for several purposes, the most famous involving boiling the liquid until it caramelizes to a thick, decadent, honey-like syrup known as ‘Dhiyaa Hakuru’. Ayyube’s wife, Haseena Ali, fondly known as Haseenatha, is particularly adept at preparing this concoction.

Fervently stirring a pot of deliciously gorgeous, butterscotch-coloured, coconut-smelling liquid, Haseenatha describes her work as often quite easy, though definitely requiring a special touch.

Haseena Ali making 'Coconut Honey'. PHOTO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA/THE EDITION

“You won’t taste Dhiyaa Hakuru like this!”, she said, breaking into a grin, “it’s not like the cheap imitations some shops sell with essence and what-not – this is the real deal”.

She was right – the honey was finger-lickin’, diet-crashing, craving-inducing, amazingly good and certainly unforgettable. A full 1.5 litre glass bottle of Dhiyaa Hakuru retains at MVR 500, a whopping tag when compared against confectioners’ sugar, but a truly unique alternative all the same. People who had previously called the taste “far too much”, unashamedly ended up stealing batches from this writer's kitchen.

‘Dhiyaa Hakuru’ is dubbed Coconut Honey or Coconut Nectar in the western world and, although neither is quite correct, the consistency would deem the former name perhaps far more suitable. Connoisseurs of Maldivian food often credit it for providing the defining flavour to local delicatessen; the ‘coconut on top’ if you will. It is frequently added to Folhi (crepes), Huni Hakuru (sweet, coconutty dumplings), the southern culinary pride that is Bondi (a cylindrical Jasmine-flavoured coconut ‘candy’), and even Bondibai (a local twist on Rice Pudding) on particularly special occasions.

While the coconut honey is often paired with Hunili Roshi (coconut chapatis) for some indulgent breakfasts, some Maldivians will tell you (with a hint of nostalgia in their voices) that it is best had for lunch or dinner with banana, rice and smoked fish – though that is certainly an acquired taste!

In a sourer direction, fermented toddy (which takes a deceptively short time; this is not a drink you can lug around all day), is prepared as a vinegar, used for flavouring curries as well as pickling vegetables or making ‘Asaara’.

The ‘Dhiyaa Hakuru’ is also further cooked, with the addition of Akiri (Coral), to produce a creamy white paste known as Karu Hakuru.

This Raiveriya and his ‘honey’ produce a couple of litres of toddy a day, most of which is converted to sugar and stored, but it is with some sadness that they comment on how little makes it to market these days.

“Toddy is actually quite good for you”, says Ayyube, a happy smile stretching across his sun-worn face. “Particularly for those feeling fatigue or those who are anaemic”.

“I provided free toddy to a child, on this island, who had been trembling with weakness, and [I believe] it helped greatly with the child’s recovery”.

Ali Abdurrahman climbing the coconut palm to collect toddy. PHOTO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA/THE EDITION

Although science is yet to properly delve into the health claims of toddy and, for that matter, coconut honey, what is known is that both products are 100 percent natural, dairy-free, gluten-free and vegan-friendly. Popular health-focused keywords aside, coconut honey is known to have a low score of 35 on the glycemic index (GI), much lower than Maple Syrup at 54 or table sugar at 68, thereby causing less of a sugar spike in consumers. However, it does have a fructose level of 39 percent which is high, although not as much as table sugar.

Compared to regular sugars (white and brown), coconut honey boasts additional benefits like Zinc, Iron, antioxidants and best of all, inulin. Inulin is a type of dietary fibre that is not digested in the upper gastrointestinal tract, acting as a prebiotic that adds bifidobacteria. Probiotics are known to support gut health, colon cancer prevention, blood sugar balance, fat metabolism, bone mineralization, fatty liver disease, obesity and overall immunity. That's good news for those trying to lose weight, and a potentially happy update for those with type II diabetes.

A hundred years ago, perhaps this would be a very affluent household, adorned in all form of luxury. There is a saying in Maldives, obvious though it may seem, that all Maldivian communities are entirely dependent on the coconut palm.

Aside from mere consumption, the coconut palm was so important that the length of the tallest palm determined the height of the tallest building, the number of palm trees suggesting the value of an island. The products of palm trees were no less significant, as there are approximately nine words for coconut (referring to various stages of ripening), and for decades upon decades, Maldivians have proudly declared there to be a use for every single part of a coconut palm, from boatbuilding, rope-making, thatching roofs and various aspects of traditional medicine – it is truly at the epicentre of island life.

Yet, those whose livelihoods still depend on this integral industry, have suffered immensely thanks to the introduction of modern industry. The number of people who perform these tasks has also severely declined, some resorts have had to hire foreigners for ‘Kurumba Elhun’ (taking fresh coconut) and even less so for the much complex work that Ayyube does so very well. Worse still, in the last few decades, the preservation of this authentically Maldivian skill by these few Maldivians has passed by largely unappreciated.

Perhaps, in light of various recently discovered health benefits, the coconut will see its economic status once more heightened. If the booming local travel industry incorporated such experiences and advocated for the sale of these truly Maldivian products, then the lives of hardworking folk such as Ayyube and Haseenatha would be considerably better.

As it is, in true island fashion, the family appears to live a wonderfully simple and happy life; but with every generation, the spirit they encompass is set to inevitably whither, and with them, if no move is made to preserve such work and support its endurance, so will an integral part of Maldivian heritage.

Editor's Note: The Edition cannot and will not endorse any or all medical claims made by the above interviewee, either depicted in the video or included in the article. Individuals at risk for the diseases are advised to consult with medical professionals before consuming the coconut-based products.