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If your contact with coconuts has been largely confined to Piña Coladas and white Christmas, you may be surprised to learn that the coconut palm is one of the most useful plants known to man or beast. Indeed, almost every part of it can be used, from the leaves, which are woven for thatching in roofs or for baskets, to the coir from the husk, which becomes rope, brushes and matting. Here, however, we’re looking at the food applications of the coconut itself.
Technically speaking, it’s not a ‘nut’ at all, but a drupe, which is a fruit with a hard stone. What we think of as the coconut is really the stone – the husk having being already removed before shipping. As a food source the juice and flesh of the nut are very versatile. Coconut is used in dishes throughout palm-growing regions such as South-East Asia, India, Sri Lanka and East Africa in everything from curries, salads and rice dishes to sago and rice puddings. In the Caribbean, coconut juice is used by Jamaicans to cook peas and rice, while raw fish cured in coconut milk and lime juice appears in the Pacific. In Australia it coats lamingtons, and is often found in Anzac biscuits. And though the Piña Colada is the official drink of Puerto Rico, this cocktail delights rum drinkers wherever pineapple (the piña) and coconut milk are found.
The biggest producers of coconuts are the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Malaysia, Thailand and Papua New Guinea. And the name? According to The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press), Portuguese seamen termed the nut ‘coco’ in the 15th century, in reference “to a monkey’s or other grotesque face”.
Coconuts are seldom sold by variety – stages of maturity being of more import to buyers. The coconut palm produces up to 75 nuts annually, each taking six months to mature, and are harvested at different stages during this period. They don’t fall from the tree naturally until they’re completely mature, so for early harvesting, nimble climbers scale the palm or use hooked knives attached to long bamboo poles to cut the nuts free. In some parts of South-East Asia, pig-tailed monkeys are employed in this task.
Young (green or immature) coconuts are picked for their jelly-like flesh and for their refreshing juice. Mature coconuts have firmer flesh, called copra, and a smaller amount of juice. In processing, the copra is grated and combined with water – the first pressing produces cream and the second pressing milk. The flesh is also dried for desiccated and shredded coconut, and for producing oil, which then makes copha. The sap of the palm is refined into palm sugar or fermented for coconut vinegar or an alcoholic drink known as toddy.
How to buy, store…
Coconuts are grown year-round in northern Australia. Most young coconuts on the local market are imported from South-East Asia. In choosing young coconuts, often sold as drinking coconuts, look for an unblemished bright white husk that feels heavy with liquid; store in the refrigerator for up to three days. A mature coconut should feel heavy for its size, should contain a little liquid, and the eyes shouldn’t be sunken; it may be stored at room temperature for up to three months.
To open a young coconut, use a very sharp knife to cut open the inner shell beneath the white husk to access the jellylike flesh and juice. For mature coconuts, pierce two of the three eyes, drain and reserve the juice. To crack open the shell, tap firmly around its circumference with the back of a large cleaver or hammer. Or you can drain the juice from the coconut, place it in a 180C oven for 15-20 minutes until the heat cracks the shell (it also helps shrink the flesh from the shell, making it easier to remove), then prise the flesh from the shell using a small sharp knife. Remove any brown skin using a vegetable peeler. The flesh may be grated, shaved or eaten in pi
Apricots, bananas, berries, cherries, currants, lychees, mangoes, mangosteen, melons, nectarines, passionfruit, peaches, pineapple, plums, rambutans, starfruit and tamarillo.
Asparagus, avocados, beans (butter, green, snake), capsicum, celery, choko, cucumber, eggplant, lettuce, okra, peas, radish, squash, sweetcorn, tomatoes, zucchini and zucchini flower.
Atlantic and Australian salmon, banded morwong, goldband snapper, bigeye tuna, roes abalone, Balmain bugs, blue swimmer and mud crabs, Sydney rock oysters, bay prawns and rock lobsters.