I’m a fan of vegetables. As a child, eating my greens was neither a chore nor a punishment. I’ve always found that slight release of pressure as my teeth make it past taut, algal green membrane into the watery centre of a cucumber slice irresistibly moreish.
It might seem natural then that, whilst I evade dieting fads as doggedly as I do street preachers, the ubiquitous green juice trend of the past few years managed to pique my interest. Had I been doing it wrong all my life? Rather than chomping my way through my greens, should I instead have been drinking them? Juicing seemed like a sensible way of habitually consuming higher quantities of the good stuff. More vitamins, more nutrients and possible weight loss. Fool proof.
There was one slight problem, though. When I first arrived in the Maldives four years ago, I arrived with a single suitcase. Its contents included neither a blender, nor a juicer nor a $500 Vitamix. Unsurprisingly so, of course. I am not Gwyneth Paltrow.
Yet one day about two years later, my husband emailed me a short clip filmed on his phone. “I’m about to win you a blender, babe” he says directly to camera. He then turns to a makeshift tombola wheel, spins it and watches it until it very slowly comes to a halt just inside the section with ‘blender’ handwritten inside it. He then high fives his friend behind the lens and the clip ends. Apparently a combination of a Ramadan promotion and my husband’s unfathomable confidence had led to my ownership of shiny, new kitchenware capable of finally inaugurating my much-anticipated juicing love affair.
Things didn’t quite go to plan. Since then my blender has seen far more vanilla ice cream and peanut butter than it has spinach and spirulina. Yet after piling on yet another couple of pounds after a visit home to Europe, my determination to juice flared up again. This time, I decided, I would perfect a juice recipe inspired by locally produced, Maldivian ingredients. I headed to Seagulls’ Foods, a company that produces wonderful, hydroponically grown vegetables on an island in north of the country. I picked out spinach, cucumber, mint, limes and ginger. As I settled up my ingredients, I felt somewhat like a scientist preparing for an experiment. And you know, not unlike Gwyneth Paltrow. I mentally congratulated myself. I was practically a lifestyle guru already.
My first batch of juice resembled the mildew that used to grow under my window in my first student lodgings. As I stood at my kitchen counter surveying the mess created by attempting to sieve my concoction through a tea strainer, I was flummoxed. How could ingredients that were so appealing to me when solid become quite so repellent when liquidised? I tried again. Ground cardamom and a touch of Tabasco. The result? A mouldy Bloody Mary.
Next batch. I sent my bemused other half out to our local roadside kiosk (or gaadiya as they are known locally) for a young, green coconut. Not without difficulty its husk was sliced open using our blunt kitchen knives and the nut leaked a mugful of sweet, opaque water into the blend. By doing so, I managed to make a juice that at last did not resemble the bog of eternal stench. Progress.
A broken kitchen knife and a couple more trips to the gaadiya later, I still hadn’t managed to find a combination that could be described as anything close to tasty. Drinking these mixtures still felt dutiful. I pondered which variable of my experiment had to change and it suddenly became apparent to me that there was only one element truly worth keeping and it definitely wasn’t any of my beloved vegetables.
The coconut. Sitting on my kitchen counter and piled high on the roadside outside, was the Maldives’ very own green juice, if only green on the outside. In my desire to produce a local version of an American health food phenomenon, I had missed the fact that this country has had one for millennia.
In a nation where there are more palm trees than people, perhaps it is predictable that the coconut is at the foundation of almost every meal. Coconut water, however, is at its best when the nut is still young and resembles a bright green rugby ball. At this point, the nectar will be sweet, slightly nutty and brimming with the kind of electrolytes nutritionists rave about. A single coconut has about the same potassium content as four bananas. Its balanced sodium and sugar levels are why Maldivians use this water in lieu of rehydration salts after sickness. But more than these significant health benefits, the truth is that a coconut pit stop is one of the Maldives’ simple pleasures.
Whether you’re pacing around Male’ in the heat of the day or finding your way around a local island, there’s nothing quite like the treat of finding a man selling coconuts, doing away with the straw and drinking direct from the nut. Pass it back to the vendor and watch him slice it in half with his machete as if it were cake. Eat the slippery white flesh with a makeshift spoon sliced from the side of the husk. There’s no drink that is quite so hydrating or quite so exotic.
So for now, my delusions of inculcating a juice habit have yet again been shelved, alongside my blender. In a country where civilisation has flourished for thousands of years with little more than strips of sand to cultivate, the real key to a healthy lifestyle is to go back to basics. Enjoy a drink that whilst green in packaging, is far from a chore to consume. When you’re in the Maldives, simplicity is the key. Treat yourself. You’re probably on holiday, after all.