Goa’s Coconut Feni

Fading Into The Sunset

Golden sunsets filter through the fronds of palm groves against the backdrop of a sea, river or even a field– and everybody knows that one talks of Goa. Every embankment that seperates large fields too are lined with rows of coconut trees. Literally, every patch of unoccupied land was until recently converted into coconut groves converting Goa into the land of the coconut tree.

What happens then to the lakhs of coconuts that are produced by these trees? They go into producing the Goan fish-curry, coconut oil, and the scraped coconut garnishes almost every vegetable and the many local sweets.

The coconut tree also provided a steady source of income to countless Goans in a job starved economy during hundreds of years before Goan liberation. These locals learned to tap the sap of the coconut tree and put it to different uses. The toddy or the sap of the coconut tree has a sweet and tangy taste and makes a fantastic drink if consumed fresh and in limited quantities (a glass at time). Vinegar used in Goan households is made out of coconut toddy which with its special flavor imparts the traditional Goan food its distinct taste. The black Goan jaggery is also made out of toddy and is an essential ingredient in all grandmothers’ cookies. 

The most important in terms of economic gains was distilling the fermented toddy and prodicing the coconut feni. Unlike the cashew feni which is seasonal and provides useful employment only for three months of the year, the coconut palm is tapped right round the year even during the monsoon months, providing steady income to the families of those engaged in this traditional occupation.

If anybody happens to pass through a Goan village dense with coconut plantations in the morning, he is bound to encounter a toddy taper with a sharp cati (a chopper shaped like a question-mark) and an oblong shaped container, briskly climbing coconut trees. One can watch with fascination as he climbs the coconut tree with the help of specially cut footholds with ease and dexterity. Once he reaches the crown of the tree, he sits on the stem of a leaf, lifts the damonae (a specially made earthenware container) off the pod and empties it of the fresh toddy accumulated overnight. A thin slice of the pod is then shaved off with a smooth motion of the cati. The pod is then tapped with the handle of the cati, the damonae placed back over the pod followed by a quick descend from the tree.

This whole process of toddy tapping is a skill initiated at very early age. Domingos Fernandes son of toddy taper from Benaulim says, “I climbed my first tree at the tender age of thirteen years. Today at the age of sixty three, I complete fifty years climbing coconut trees. Initially I started with around ten trees, and then proceeded on to fifteen and at the peak of my carrier, I climbed twenty-five trees at a time. We climb each tree thrice a day, morning, afternoon and evening so that means that around that time, I climbed the coconut tree seventy-five times a day!”

The bulk of the toddy is used to distil coconut feni which is highly ranked by locals and travelers alike. It fuelled and kept warm the thousands of farm workers, who chilled to the bone amidst heavy monoon showers downed a quick shot and re-ignited the warmth within. It provided a quick cure to the common cold and was used as an essential ingredient to treat many diseases.

Some creative Goans even thought of blending the feni –which is by itself ordourless – into fantastic brews. Orange peels were and still are an all time favourite to flavour the feni. Ginger crushed and mixed into the toddy before brewing imparts the pungent flavour to the feni making it a sought after drink, particular helping eredicate colds and coughs. If blended with a local root called the doodsheri, the brew turns medicinal helping stomach disorders. Recently, some brewers have added the pineapple pulp, and the resultant brew is mindblowing!

Unfortunately, this wonderul elixir is slowly but surely fading into the distant sunset. Domingos Fernandes has recently retired. The activity of toddy tapping and distilling of liquor will end at his house as his only son has landed a job in a gulf country.  With this Goan tradition slowly dying, bread fermented with toddy has become extinct and the delicious Goan sannas are next on the list. Says Domingos, “Initially, the feni used to be distilled with only toddy. But nowadays due to shortage of toddy tapers and toddy, sugar solution is added to toddy and the mixture is then distilled. Probably this is the last generation of toddy tapers.”  If his prophecy proves right, Goa will lose a whole chunk of its traditional culture

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