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 (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.
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 pieces.
It’s important to note that Asian cooking uses coconut cream and milk, not juice. For homemade coconut cream and milk, cut the flesh from a mature coconut, remove any brown skin, process in a blender with an equal quantity of boiling water, then push through a fine sieve into a glass jug, discarding solids. Leave to stand for at least 20 minutes to cool and for the cream to separate from the milk, then skim the cream from the surface. Cream and milk need to be used within a day of making; freeze unused cream and milk in ice cube trays until needed.
*For coconut granita, process flesh and juice of young coconut with palm sugar and a few drops of rosewater to taste. Pour into a shallow metal container and freeze for 3 hours or until firm then, using a fork, break into flakes. Serve with sliced strawberries tossed with thinly sliced mint and caster sugar.
*For a prawn, green mango and coconut salad, combine cooked peeled prawns, julienne of green mango, Vietnamese mint and coriander leaves and thinly sliced mature coconut flesh. Combine peanut oil, coconut or rice vinegar, finely chopped small red chilli, fish sauce and palm sugar to taste, toss through salad and serve immediately.
*For a coco-banana split, combine 100gm brown sugar and ¼ cup coconut cream, 60gm coarsely chopped butter and 2 tbsp rum in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and cook for 3 minutes or until thickened. Cool. Slice banana lengthwise, top with vanilla ice-cream, drizzle with rum caramel, and scatter over toasted sesame seeds and toasted shaved mature coconut.
*For a coconut fruit salad, combine zested rind of a lime, ½ cup water and ½ cup finely grated palm sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stir until sugar dissolves, simmer for 5 minutes, then cool. Combine diced mango, pineapple, red papaya, thinly sliced young coconut flesh and drizzle with lime syrup.
*For a coconut & pineapple cocktail, combine young coconut flesh and lime wedges, muddle using a muddling stick, add young coconut and pineapple juices, rum, crushed ice and stir to combine.
*For a coconut, lime and chicken salad, shred poached chicken breast and combine with thinly sliced young coconut flesh, very finely shredded kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced green chilli, thinly sliced snow peas, snow pea shoots, and coarsely torn Thai basil leaves. In a small bowl combine coconut juice, lime juice and palm sugar and season with fish sauce to make a dressing, toss salad and serve immediately.
*For a coconut fruit salad, combine zested rind of a lime, ½ cup water and ½ cup finely grated palm sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stir until sugar dissolves and simmer for 5 minutes then cool. Combine diced mango, pineapple and red papaya, scatter with thinly sliced young coconut flesh and drizzle with lime syrup.
Bananas, green beans, beef, caramel, chicken, chillies, chocolate, citrus, eggplants, kaffir lime leaves, kiwifruit, lemon grass, papaya, pineapple, rice, rum, seafood, strawberries and turmeric.
We crack the coconut to find the versatile fruit within, and divulge all its sweet summer applications.