Museum Treasure: The coffee set

I’ve had tea and coffee out of dainty porcelain cups, chunky stoneware mugs, paper cups and glasses, kulhads (terracotta cups), steel tumblers… In other words, in just about every other type of material possible. And I suppose, so would you.

And then I came across this coffee set at the Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum and realised that I had neither seen anything like this or had coffee/tea out of something like this !

Coffee set Sri Lanka

The Coffee Set made from coconut shells

Coffee Set Sri Lanka

A closer look at the coconut shell coffee set !

Made of coconut shells in the late 19th or early 20th century, this rather quaint looking coffee set is from Ceylon or modern-day Sri Lanka. This is the only information available on this artifact in the Museum, though there is a small, general write-up on the European fascination for the “exotic” coconut. There is no information on who made this or owned it or how the Museum came to acquire it — through donation or purchase or any other means !

Coconut and the use of every part of the tree is well-known and common in India, and particularly in its southern parts. Coconut-based or products were popular in the European markets in the 19th and 20th centuries and something like this coffee set would have been unusual and exotic.

I can imagine coffee or tea being served in sets like these or being given as gifts or souvenirs of the exotic East ! My imagination also cannot get over the fact that the coffee could very well have been coconut flavoured ! :-P

Have you ever seen anything like this before? Or had anything made from coconut shell?

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.

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36 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: The coffee set

  1. I have seen trinket boxes and serving dishes made out of polished coconut shells. I even owned a trinket box, which had unfortunately cracked perhaps since it had not been seasoned properly. Recently I got a soap dish made out of coconut shell as a part of a gift hamper from Rustic Art! This coffee set must have been made out of really seasoned shells, because otherwise it would have degenerated over the decades. Or maybe, it was just a showpiece? (Since there is no info about it, why don’t we make up our own?:P )

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    • I have seen coconut shells being used in various ways – from objet d’art to utilitarian ladles. But the coffee set is one of a kind. And seasoned or not, for me the bigger worry is the taste – I don’t like the taste of coconut and love coffee. So it would be a real nightmare to have coconut flavoured coffee :-P

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  2. I remember seeing this… we have katoris made from coconut shells, which we have used for various purposes but never for tea or coffee…like zephyr says, we dont really know if these were used, because what we found was that the handles and the bases fell off over time… so i think these must have been made as a novelty item and kept on display and never used..

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    • Maybe this set was never used, maybe this was only a novelty item. But Anu, what I cannot understand is the lack of information on this artifact as well as others in the Museum. If it came from some private collection, say it. If someone donated say it. If the museum authorities are aware of its possible date, surely they can get some information on other aspects as well ? I don’t think we are asking for too much !

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  3. Very interesting! We should have a set like this, or a cup at least, made and see if it can be used. :)

    I’ve seen dolls made out of coconut shells with hair made from the fibres/ tuft which covers the ‘eyes’.

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    • I have seen coconut shells used as ladles, scoops and katoris, but nothing so beautifully designed and displayed. I wonder how the coconut shell will react to hot tea or coffee being served in it !

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  4. I remember going to some place in Madras with Appa where we got chutney in coconut shells…This one is amazing na :):) I have to take R there now..you have convinced me…

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    • Yes, you must take R to the museum, though be warned that you’ll have to lift her up quite a bit as 99 % of the exhibits that are likely to interest her are not at eye level !

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  5. Once I China, I had been to a place famous for making tea/coffee sets. I had even spent buying a beautiful set – unfortunately it was not packed well and when I arrived home, it was broken into pieces. Reading your post reminded me of that set and made me sad! :(

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  6. :) Nice.
    I’ve seen ladles made of coconut shells, some of them made out of really big ones. They’re great for serving rice gruel. They are also perfect for those people who don’t like using steel for their curd-based and tamarind curries.
    You’ll still find these in some houses in Kerala.

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    • Thanks. :-)

      I have seen these coconut shell ladles and even have one of them, but have not used it it. And since we do make a lot of curd and tamarind based curries, I think this will be just perfect :-)

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  7. I have seen such tea sets and a lot of other stuff made out of coconut shells in an exhibition here in Bangalore. I have also seen several such coconut-shell products in Kerala. That said, haven’t had the opportunity to use any of them. Yet. :)

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  8. I am a tea crockery (would coconut still be called crockery?) buff, and I have never used something like this. It is very interesting, though perhaps not entirely unusual or unexpected. I see coconut being used more and more innovatively every time I hit one of the handicraft melas. This set looks awesome though.

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    • Sure, you can call a coconut shell coffee set crockery :-) So do share, how many tea sets do you have ?

      The set is beautiful—simple and gleaming in spite of the dim lighting in the Museum and I really loved it.

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  9. Isn’t it quaint! This lovely coffee set…imagine how its owners must have served coffee eco-style, sipping the brew in the coconut grove shaded veranda…Hmmm…my imagination seems to be running wild with this lovely set. Thank you for giving us this glimpse.

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  10. Coconut flavored coffee, sounds yum. On an aside, that’s be a great ice cream flavor, too. Now i have a craving for it… and I’m going to have to go looking for an ice cream shop that’;ll combine said flavors!!

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  11. wowie! I have seen very artistic pieces made of coconut shells as well. I remember seeing all kinds of knick-knacks and even utensils meant for drinking made of coconut shells. But never a coffee/ tea set! amazing, this is :)

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    • Ah ! My fellow museum lover, I’d wondered where you had disappeared to ;-)

      I have seen many items made out of coconut shell, but not entire coffee/tea set. And even though I hate the word exotic as applied to anything “oriental”, I can’t help saying that this one is indeed exotic !

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      • hehehehe Sudha ! You are an absolute cutie-pie :)

        I don’t use a lot of exotic in museum context. That is reserved for mountains and beaches. Exquisite seems more like it :P

        Fellow museum lover, am I so glad to find you! My obsession for museums has led me to amazing people.

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