Monday, June 24, 2024


Palmyrah Palm- பனை மரம்



                                         Palmyrah Palm


Palmyrah palm - Borassus flabellifer, the Asian variety- is a genus of six species of fan palms, native to tropical regions. It is an important multipurpose tree of great utility, grows extensively in North and Eastern part of Sri Lanka, southern part of India and in most of the tropical countries. The Palmyrah palm is described as the single most useful plant in the Northern region of Sri Lanka and engages human labour in the industries around it irrespective of gender or age. The Palmyrah palm is now recognised as an underutilised palm in Asia. It is a tree blessed with pest and disease free status and requiring the least care and it has a very large potential as a plantation crop in the tropics. Most of the palmyrah trees in the world are unplanned and naturally growing from seeds of the palm itself. It is easily cultivated and requires little labour in planting the nuts and protecting them from cattle till they grow above reach. The growth of the tree is very slow and it takes from 15 to 20 years to bear.

The palmyrah palm is a large tree growing up to 30 meters high and the trunk may have a circumference of over 1.5 meters at the base. The trunk is black in colour and looks like cylinders. It is also corrugated by the semi circular scars of fallen leaves. The tree can be easily recognised by its gigantic fan shaped leaves. There may be 25-40 fresh leaves and they are leathery, gray green, fan-shaped, 1-3 meters wide and folded along the midrib and they spring at the top in a clump. They are usually very tough and have thick stalks.

There are two kinds of the palmyrah - the male and the female. The male and female flowers are held by two different trees, never in one tree. Both male and female trees produce spikes of flowers but only the female plant bears fruits. However both trees are used to tap toddy. The flowers are small and appear in densely clustered spikes, developing into large, brown, roundish fruits. The male flowers are smaller than the female flowers.

Palmyrah palm is the official tree in Tamil Nadu in Southern India. This tree has a high respect in Tamil culture. It is natural then, to call it a ‘Katpaha Viruchcham' (கற்பகவிருட்ஷம்)or celestial tree, because all its parts without exception could be used by man. The palmyrah tree is part of the culinary culture of Yarlpanam people and is more so in the islands where palmyrah tree is in abundance. Because of its importance and respect in Tamil culture, we intend to have a page describing the uses of the various parts of the plant and most obviously the culinary uses of this famous palm.



        Palmyrah Fruits                             Fruits                                          Nongu Three eyes


Each female palm may bear 6-12 bunches of about 50 fruits per year. An average crop of B. flabellifer in Jaffna is 350 fruits per tree. When the fruit is very young, and the top of the fruit is cut off, you find usually three sockets inside and these contain he kernel which is soft as jelly, and translucent like ice, and is accompanied by a watery sweetish liquid. This is called in Tamil as ‘Nongu (நொங்கு)'. The British named this ice apple as it resembled ice. This is one of nature's delicious ironies. Nongu cools many dried throats on a hot summer day, tastes best when it comes from arid fields. In South India, in summer the road side vendor pile up these young fruits, cut the shell and pop out the heart shaped icy Nongu for his customers. It is nutritious when eaten in its natural form. This fruit is loaded with minerals and absolutely no fat and protein.

The coconut-like fruits are three-sided when young, becoming rounded or more or less oval, 12-15 cm wide and capped at the base with overlapping sepals. The outer covering is smooth, thin, leathery, and brown, turning nearly black after harvest. Inside is a juicy mass of long, tough, coarse, white fibres coated with yellow or orange pulp. Within each mature seed is a solid white kernel which resembles coconut meat but is much harder.

The mature fruit is usually tossed over low burning fire or embers to cook them mildly and the skin is peeled off to expose the juicy fruit. This is squeezed and the pulp removed. The pulp in itself is sweet and creamy and is delicious to eat. The pulp is usually sucked directly from the fibres of the fruit. The fresh pulp is reportedly rich in vitamins A and C. From the pulp Panangai Paniyaram and Panangai Pinaddu are made. (பினாட்டு).The panangai paniyaram (பனங்காய்பணியாரம்)is a cooked sweet dish combining the juice with other ingredients like plain flour, sugar and deep frying them in small balls. The panangai pinaddu is just the juice spread on mats made of palmyrah leaves and dried in the sun and folded in layers and looks like soft toffee. In some areas the juice is mixed with spices like pepper before it is dried giving a different taste. This can be stored and consumed over a long period.




                     Panang kizhangu

Each fruit will have usually three seeds and these seeds are planted in specially made soil nursery beds to grow. After 3 to 4 months the seeds start to grow. When seeds germinate, fleshy stems or long root grows downwards into the soil and then only it gives rise to the palm at the surface of the soil. These seedlings below the surface are lifted out and the outer sheath cover is removed. The peeled seedlings are eaten in many different ways –boiled, boiled and dried, boiled dried and powdered or even raw and dried and powdered. (See recipes in the following pages).

These are dried to form odiyal or boiled and eaten as panang kizhangu (பனங்கிழங்கு), or boiled and dried as pulukodiyal (புளுக்கொடியல்).These are very fibrous and nutritious. They also yield starch, which is locally made into gruel (Kool -கூழ்), with rice, herbs, chilli peppers, fish, or other ingredients added. It has been proposed for commercial starch production. The germinated seed's hard shell is also cut open to remove the crunchy kernel which tastes like a sweetened Water Chestnut. It is called ‘Pooraan' in Tamil.


          Palmyrah Young Plant                               Palmyrah Leaf                  Kallu Pizha with some food


Toddy -கள்ளு

The chief product of the palmyrah palm is the sweet sap (toddy -கள்ளு))obtained by tapping the tip of the inflorescence, as is done with the other sugar palms and the coconut palm. Toddy can be obtained from the young inflorescence of either male or female trees.

The palmyrah toddy is sweet when quite fresh, but bitter when fermentation sets in. The toddy season is from January to August. The spathes of the palmyrah trees appear in January and the toddy-drawer commences his operations straightaway. He climbs these trees with the help of a loop made of strips of palmyrah stalk. He binds the spathes tightly with strips of palmyrah stalk to prevent them from further expansion and descends, after having thoroughly bruised the embryo flowers within to facilitate the exit of juice.

For several mornings this operation of crushing is repeated, and each time a slice is taken off the end of the spathes to facilitate the flow of the sap. In about a week the sap begins to flow freely. When this occurs, an earthen pot is inserted at the tip end of the spathe and this pot is tied to the spathe to collect the juice that flows from this spathe. Every morning and evening these vessels are emptied, and for a period of six months the palmyrah will continue to pour its sap at the rate of four to seven litres a day. The juice if allowed to ferment is slightly intoxicating and unpalatable. What drinks such as beer are to the people of Europe, toddy is to the people of Jaffna and Sri Lanka The toddy in Tamil is called Kallu (கள்ளு).

People in the villages of Jaffna and its islands taste this beverage, at empty stomach, early in the morning before sunrise and enjoy its refreshing taste and rejuvenating effect. It also has a laxative effect. This is done as soon as the toddy is brought down from the tree well before it has had time to ferment. Once fermented it is drunk for its alcohol effect. In the toddy taverns, this toddy is served in disposable ‘dishes’ called Pizha (பிழா) made of palmyrah young leaf which the vendor prepares to distribute the beverage. He effortlessly folds the green palmyrah leaf into a boat-shaped dish. When you watch, you will be surprised how his hands move while making this appliance. He pours the beverage and extends to his customer with courtesy. The toddy ferments naturally within a few hours after sunrise and is locally popular as a beverage. This is also distilled to produce the alcoholic liquor called palm wine, arrack, or arak.

To sweeten the toddy, the inside of the pot is lined with little lime before it is tied to the spathe. The lime prevents the fermentation of toddy and results in a sweet drink. The sweetened toddy is called Karuppany (கருப்பனி).This Karuppany can be drunk and is very sweet and delicious and is reportedly a good source of vitamin B complex it is also used to make jaggery (Panam kaddy -பனங்கட்டி).The Karuppany is boiled down to the consistency of syrup and this syrup is poured into small baskets made of palmyrah leaf called ‘Kuddan', where it is allowed to cool and partially crystallises. This palmyrah palm jaggery is much more nutritious than crude cane sugar, containing mainly sucrose, glucose, proteins and minerals like calcium, phosphorus, iron and copper. This jaggery is also used as a sweetener in many sweet dishes, to flavour hot milk, chopped into small flakes and combined with coconut scrapings and used to accompany pancakes or porridge of unpolished rice and in Vattalappam - a sweet dish. This jaggery can be stored and used over a long period.

If the syrup is of a lighter consistency than jaggery it is called ‘pany' which retains its fluid state for years even if cooled. When pany is eaten with yoghurt it is very tasty. The sweet toddy is also used in the making of molasses and vinegar.

Tapping of mature tree was main source of income in certain classes of people in Jaffna. One male tapped about 13 to 15 trees per day with the average of 6 to 8 litre of toddy per tree. They did not produce sweet toddy because of low demand. They normally market toddy (fermented sap) to their customers for drinking. Sweet toddy was produced in certain areas of Jaffna peninsula for making the Jaggery or Panang kaddy.   


The leaves are used for thatching roofs, screening as fence, as mats, baskets, fans, hats, umbrellas, buckets, sandals and as writing material. In ancient times, the mature leaves are seasoned by boiling in water and turmeric, as a preservative, and sun dried. These are then cut into sizes and written on with a stylus. They formed great Ola leaf books and some of these are still preserved in India. The sacred writings of Hindus were inscribed in the olden times in these leaves. The leaves after using for thatching and fencing when replaced are sold to the farmers who use them as organic fertiliser in their farms and field.

Other uses

The wood of a fairly old tree is hard, strong and durable and is generally used for roofing. The vacant stem of the tree is best for making water pipes. The fibre from the stalk is used for making brushes and ropes. The ridge of the leaf called Eekku and this is used in conjunction with leaves to weave baskets etc and also as brushes. The leaf stalk is stronger and used as basket bands and the when the stalk is stripped into thin strips it is called Naar and used in different ways to tie things. The seeds, stalks and most part of the wood are dried and used as firewood. In summary no parts of the palmyrah palm is unused at homes in Jaffna. Even the net like material at the base of the young leaf stalk is used for straining the toddy. The bunch of fruits is hung in the doorways at ceremonial occasions.

It is very usual to find Panang kaddy, Panangai Pinaddu, Pulukodiyal and Odiyal and odiyal flour in most homes in areas where palmyrah palm is growing in plenty. The palmyrah palm like coconut palm, banana tree and bamboo all posses a great value to the people.

    Related articles: Recipes of Palmyrah products