The coconut is a common sight on Phnom Penh’s streets but the humble fruit also possesses numerous health and spiritual benefits, some of which may surprise you
A ceremonial coconut wrapped in gold foil sells for $3. Photo by: KENNETH INGRAM
DON’T let the name fool you – botanically speaking, coconuts are not truly nuts.
The hairy orbs are actually the fruit of the coconut palm and they’re surprisingly versatile, used to treat patients in emergency care, summon spirits for protection, and forge utensils and decorations.
The fruit was given its deceptive name by early Spanish and Portuguese explorers, who dubbed it “coco” or “monkey face”, after the three distinctive bowling ball-like marks that appear on its base.
Omnipresent in Cambodia, coconuts are carted through the streets and sold for 2,000 riel or less, primarily for the pulp and water inside. And while locals imbibe the inside of the coconut, a walk around the markets reveals that the exterior is also a prized commodity.
Coconut shells are used to manufacture sculptures, bowls, plant pots, utensils, lamps, jewellery and musical instruments. But beyond their practical functions, coconuts have an important spiritual purpose in Cambodia that dates back to ancient Hindu times.
“These coconuts will help protect you,” explained Shrean, a 58-year-old market vendor near the Phnom Penh riverside area, who has been selling ceremonial coconuts for 20 years. Wrapped in gold foil and dressed in an array of adornments, the coconuts are packaged in pairs and put in plastic bags for takeaway customers. Shrean said that the coconuts should always be shaken to ensure there is water inside, and that you must buy two at a time.
“If you only take one coconut you will make the spirits angry,” she said. “One coconut says to the spirits that you will work, but not work hard enough.”
The ceremonial coconuts wrapped in gold foil sell for $3, while larger ones wrapped in green foil cost more. The dots of shiny foil littering the Tonle Sap riverside are remnants of the ceremonial practice.
Shrean said her coconuts are a last resort for sick locals, who believe they are the key to finding a cure – some people even take their coconuts to a Buddhist monk, for a blessing.
“When you are ill and go to the hospital, if you take medicine and it doesn’t work, you need a fortune-teller to read your future and find a spirit to take care of you,” she said.
Shrean said that buying a coconut will assist in harnessing a good spirit, though she adds a caveat: “You need to be grateful to the spirit or you will not get better.”
In addition to enlisting benevolent spirits, another belief of Hindu origin is that coconuts can capture evil entities, and that by breaking the shell a person can destroy them for good.
Cambodian tradition dictates that coconuts should only be used for home décor when water can still be heard within it. Once the water evaporates, the husk should be released into a body of water.
While Cambodians lend a spiritual explanation to a coconut’s curative powers, the fruit also has a history of healing in the West.
During World War II, British and Japanese soldiers used the sterile water inside coconuts for IV therapy. And according to an article published by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, coconut water was still being used intravenously as late as 1999 – though only as a last resort – for hydrating patients in the South Pacific Island of Malaita. Included in the four-page report is a photo of an “intravenous coconut set-up”, where a 20-gauge needle was poked through one of the small eyes of the coconut, due to a shortage of medical supplies. The report states that relatives of the patient, a man in his 40s, retrieved the coconuts for him while he was in hospital, and that about five cups of coconut water were administered over a two-day period. The coconut water reportedly provided a short-term solution “without adverse effects”.
Coconut water is not the same as coconut juice, milk or pulp, as the latter are typically high in fat and used for food preparations, and in oils and creams.
Each coconut contains roughly 500ml of coconut water, which is rich in essential amino acids and electrolytes, low in fat, and contains dietary fibre and more potassium than a banana.
Coconuts are gaining popularity as a heath food in western countries, including the United States, where Madonna reportedly invested $1.5 million into Vita Coco: a brand of coconut juice that launched a campaign this summer with R&B artist Rihanna.
Though there are benefits to consuming coconut water in moderation, or after a long workout, many health experts are reluctant to fuel the recent popularity of coconut water and its status as a superpowered beverage. But it is still praised as an alternative to sports drinks that contain a variety of artificial flavours and colours.