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Malai – The vegan, edible and ecological alternative to leather

Malai is a bio-composite material made from coconut water and bacterial cellulose processed with natural fibre.

Malai – Products and possibilities

Malai resembles the aesthetics and workability of leather. It can be cut, stitched, glued, embossed, printed and painted.

Raw Material 1 – Mature coconut water

Mature coconut water is procured from farmers and coconut processing units in South India.

Raw Material 2 – Bacteria

The bacteria are incubated for 5-6 days before mixing with coconut water.

Coconut water + Bacteria = Fermentation process

The bacteria feasts and ferments for 12-14 days post which a sheet of cellulose jelly is produced.

Harvesting the bacterial cellulose and processing Malai

The sheet is sterilised and processed with natural fibres; hemp, banana stem to achieve the final product – ‘Malai’ (R).

Making Malai

1. Source mature coconuts | 2. Collect and sterilise the mature coconut water | 3. Mix bacteria and coconut water on tray | 4. Bacteria feasts and ferment on coconut water for 12-14 days and forms a cellular sheet | 5. Process with natural fibre to obtain ‘Malai’ | 6. Achieve the desired form of sheets or a 3-d object | 7. Shape, mould, cut and stitch the ‘malai’ as desired

Possibilities with Malai

Malai resembles the aesthetics and workability of leather. It can be cut, stitched, glued, embossed, printed and painted. It can be moulded to 3-dimensional forms too.

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Lab 20 Mar 2018

Malai Biomaterial Designs craft edible leather Malai, the ecological, vegan alternative to leather

‘Vegan’ and ‘edible’ are seldom associated with leather. Faux leather too, comes with the baggage of ecological concerns since plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane (PU) are its inherent components. They are labelled ‘vegan’ which imparts a canny sales value but PVC and PU do more harm than good. They take up to 1000 years to decompose; their embodied energy consumption is substantial and they release toxins. Vegan is hardly an attribute that can validate their production and consumption. But there is a material that mirrors leather in form, function and feel; wholly sustains its production and decomposition; is PETA-certified vegan and is edible. Meet Malai.

Malai Biomaterial Design in Kerala is the brainchild of Zuzana Gombosova, a material researcher and Susmith C.S., a product designer from Kerala. The organisation researches and creates sustainable biomaterials, their pilot project being the ‘Malai’. Malai is a bio-composite material made from bacterial cellulose processed with natural fibre. The process of manufacturing cellulose from coconut water was developed in Philippines in the form of Nata de coco, an edible coconut jelly formed by fermentation of coconut water. Coconut water is introduced to bacteria (Acetobacter xylinum being commonly used) and fermented. The fermentation results in a solid gelatinous layer which is sterilised and used for consumption. 

Making Nata de coco aka Malai

Nata de coco is derived from mature coconut water or coconut milk. Zuzana deployed this technique to explore opportunities beyond food and beverage. Coconut plantation is rampant in India. Mature coconut is processed to produce desiccated coconut powder, oil, etc. But the water, albeit nutritious, is discarded.

Zuzana and Susmith work alongside farmers and processing units to procure this mature coconut water which is sterilised. The bacterial culture is incubated for 5-6 days.The mix of bacterial culture and sterilised coconut water is placed in trays. The bacteria feasts and ferments for 12-14 days, post which a sheet of cellulose jelly is formed.

Malai – The vegan, edible and ecological alternative to leather

Malai is a bio-composite material made from coconut water and bacterial cellulose processed with natural fibre.

Malai – Products and possibilities

Malai resembles the aesthetics and workability of leather. It can be cut, stitched, glued, embossed, printed and painted.

Malai resembles the aesthetics and workability of leather. It can be cut, stitched, glued, embossed, printed and painted. While Malai is a strong material built to last long, it breaks down and disintegrates over the years. It poses no harm to the soil, nor emits any harmful fuel and is certified as vegan by PETA. 

The sheet is sterilised and processed with natural fibres, hemp, and banana fibre to achieve the final product – ‘Malai’. Banana fibre is preferred for processing Malai since India produces the largest quantities of banana (27,575,000 tonnes) and in turn, the bananas produce 980,000 tonnes of dry residue. Besides being a strong fibre its sheen is comparable to silk!

Raw Material 1 – Mature coconut water

Mature coconut water is procured from farmers and coconut processing units in South India.

Raw Material 2 – Bacteria

The bacteria are incubated for 5-6 days before mixing with coconut water.

Coconut water + Bacteria = Fermentation process

The bacteria feasts and ferments for 12-14 days post which a sheet of cellulose jelly is produced.

Harvesting the bacterial cellulose and processing Malai

The sheet is sterilised and processed with natural fibres; hemp, banana stem to achieve the final product – ‘Malai’ (R).

Making Malai

1. Source mature coconuts | 2. Collect and sterilise the mature coconut water | 3. Mix bacteria and coconut water on tray | 4. Bacteria feasts and ferment on coconut water for 12-14 days and forms a cellular sheet | 5. Process with natural fibre to obtain ‘Malai’ | 6. Achieve the desired form of sheets or a 3-d object | 7. Shape, mould, cut and stitch the ‘malai’ as desired

The malleability of Malai

Malai is obtained in sheets of varying thicknesses; the thicker variants are stronger however the thinner variants are easier to craft since they are leaner and softer. Malai can be moulded to 3-dimensional forms. It is finished with a natural blend of oil and waxes.

Possibilities with Malai

Malai resembles the aesthetics and workability of leather. It can be cut, stitched, glued, embossed, printed and painted. It can be moulded to 3-dimensional forms too.

Malai resembles the aesthetics and workability of leather. It can be cut, stitched, glued, embossed, printed and painted. While Malai is a strong material built to last long, it breaks down and disintegrates over the years. It poses no harm to the soil, nor emits any harmful fuel and is certified as vegan by PETA. If none of the characteristics resonate with you, feel free to chomp it down for Malai is completely edible.

Metaphoring Malai, from mythology

It is no surprise that Malai is bestowed by the coconut tree. Indian mythology deems the coconut tree the stature of ‘kalpavriksha’ – The wishing tree. The flesh of the fruit is edible and the water is potable; the husk is used to make mats, brooms, etc.; the trunk is used for wood and the root has medicinal properties. Perhaps it was only the water of mature coconut that had minimal industrial or commercial value but Malai Biomaterial Designs has changed that, manifesting the ‘kalpa’ of the kalpa-vriksha to its logical conclusion.

Learn more about Malai here. Check out other fascinating bio-materials in our series, Using Fungi. [CQ discovered Malai while ColourNext 2018 research was underway.]