The Sri Lankan palmyrah (Borassus fabelliformis) is a variety of palm that grows extremely tall but the roots don’t look very strong. They are thin but inter-twined web-like which supports the palm tree.
For the people of the North, particularly Jaffna, the palmyrah tree traditionally has been the most important tree in their lives. Everything about a palmyrah tree is used.
The bunch of palm fruit is used in many ways in food. When the tops of tender palm fruit is cut off, one can see the three seeds inside which are like natural jelly in its early stages. This jelly-like substance is called ‘nungu.’ I remember during visits to my grandmother in my childhood, it was a treat to sample the ‘nungu’ she gave us. The fibrous part of the tender fruit is given to goats and cows. The ripened fruit on the other hand is used to make ‘panangai paniyaaram’ and ‘panaattu,’ both special delicacies of Jaffna. Palm jaggery made from the sap of the palm tree, is considered healthy and a better natural sugar substitute for people with diabetes.
The seed, when planted, sprouts roots which are highly nutritious particularly in Calcium. Only a few of the roots that are planted at a certain distance from each other are left untouched to grow into a tree. The rest of the roots (panangkilangu) are pulled out and boiled. They are either eaten boiled or sun-dried after boiling to make ‘Pulukodiyal.’ The ‘pulukodiyal’ is eaten as it is, with chips of coconut, or it is ground to make flour for a snack. When the roots are dried without boiling first and made into a flour, it is called ‘odiyal flour,’ the basic ingredient for making odiyal kool, another delicacy of Jaffna – the recipe of which I shared in my first few posts on this blog.
The palm leaf stalk called the ‘panai mattai’ is used for firewood and some of the palm leaves are periodically chopped off and used for roofing for huts and fencing. In ancient times, before paper came into use, dried and pressed palm leaves (panai olai) were used as writing material. The trunks of the palm are used in the construction of houses.
Nearly 95% of the palm trees in Sri Lanka grow in Jaffna, Killinochchi and Mannar in the north of the country with the remaining palm trees growing in parts of the eastern province, north central and north west and southern province. The potential of palm trees has not been realized in the rest of the country and even in the north where it has played a very significant role in the day to day lives of people, people have gradually reduced using it in the last few decades. The Palmyrah research institute and Palmyrah development board are currently trying to revive and promote this cottage industry.