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Culinary Discovery: The Celebrated Coconut and Its Milk

by Gabriella True


The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is thought to have originated in Malaysia and nowadays grows in tropical and subtropical places such as India, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands and areas of Africa and South America. It is not known exactly how the coconut proliferated to so many coasts. One theory is that they floated across the seas. This is actually not as far-fetched as you may think. They float very well. The shell is actually quite light and is thick enough to protect the nut from the salt water. The center of the nut is hollow, allowing it to be buoyant. In the cool ocean water, the embryo of the nut can remain viable for up to eight months. This length of time would be enough for the floating coconut to make it across the seas and still be able to germinate and grow. "Coco" means goblin or grinning face in Spanish. The face is made up by the three holes on the coconut and it resembles an eerie face.

Coconut palms were growing in Egypt in 14 B. C. Marco Polo ate coconuts during his travels through India and called them "Pharaoh's nuts." During the Middle Ages in Europe, they were rare due to limited trade with the Far East at that point in history. As a result they were highly prized and the shells were often polished until smooth with gold mounts added to the shell. Columbus found the trees in the Americas in the 1490's. Trade routes with the East and the Americas were firmly established by the 19th century and coconuts could finally be found in many European markets.

In the countries where the coconut grows, it's an important food source. Many food staples are often associated with myths and the coconut is no exception. In Bali, the women are not allowed to touch the trees for fear that they may deplete the tree's fertility. In India, the 19th century Burmese teacher, Thingazar Sayadaw, used the coconut to help tell a story about not making assumptions and digging a bit deeper for the truth. Some of the townspeople said that his sermons were not particularly filled with religious philosophy and the teacher responded by telling a story of a rich caravan leader who in his ignorance did not find the coconut sweet at all. The caravan leader came to market and asked what these large nuts were; the shopkeeper said they were coconuts, prized delicacies of the kings and lords so their price was very dear. The caravan leader said he was very wealthy and would buy an entire bunch. Later on in their journey they decided to eat the coconuts. They broke open the coconut thick outer shell and looked at the dark brown nut and because it was rough and hairy they threw the nut away, missing all the delicious milk and meat inside. The husk tasted awful, of course, and they laughed at how foolish these kings and lords were to pay so much for a terrible piece of fruit.

In reality, the coconut is actually a drupe, like a plum or a nectarine but instead of eating the flesh you eat the contents of the seed. The trees have a 70-year life span. They grow by placing the nut/seed just under the surface of the sand and/or mulch, keeping them at 95 degrees Fahrenheit for germination to be successful. The tree reaches 60 to 100 feet in height and begins producing fruit between 6 and 10 years after germination. The tree will continue to produce fruit for up to 80 years and on average each tree produces 50 to 200 fruits per year. The large variation in production depends on the climate and cultivar. The tree flourishes along tropical coastlines with sandy soils. The temperature needs to be no less than 72 degrees Fahrenheit and the rainfall should be no less than 40 inches per year.

A coconut has many layers: the outside thick covering is smooth and tan/light green in color and very fibrous. The inner nut, the typical image of a coconut, has a hairy husk, which is very hard and has the three "eyes" indented into the surface at one end. Inside is white coconut meat and in the center is coconut juice that is the consistency of water and slightly opaque. All parts of the drupe and tree can be used for different purposes.

The Hawaiians call the tree the "Staff of Life" because of the many uses it can be put to. Below are just a few uses for the Coconut tree.

Tree Trunk: Lumber
Leaves: Baskets, Thatched roofs, Brooms, Hearts of Palm
Roots: Astringent, Dye
Coconut Water: Drink
Meat: Oil, Food, Soap, Margarine, Cosmetics
Shell: Fuel, Ornaments
Shell Flour: Plastics, Gunpowder
Shell Charcoal: Cigarette Filters, Industrial Deodorizers
Husks: Mulch, Ropes, Brooms, Mattresses.

If you are going to buy a fresh coconut they are available year long but their peak season is between October and December. The coconut should be heavy and sound like it is full of liquid when you shake it. The "eyes" should be dry and not damp because this may signify rot. You can store the coconut for up to six months before you open it. The coconut meat can be chopped by hand, in a processor or with a grater. It will keep in the refrigerator for four days and in the freezer for six months. Due to its high fat content, the meat will go rancid if left out at room temperature. One coconut will yield approximately 3-4 cups of grated meat. Coconut that comes in a bag has a shelf life of six months. Make sure to refrigerate it after opening.

The milk of the coconut is not the thin liquid that comes from the center of the nut; this is what is called the coconut juice. This juice is easiest to extract by poking holes into the "eyes" with an ice pick and then drained into a cup. It has a slight sweet and sour taste but quenches the thirst and needs no purification. It has almost no fat but has carbohydrates. The nut is made up of about 35% oil, 50% water and about 15% meat. Some people say that the coconut water is high in sodium but actually there is a similar amount in a carrot. However, It is rich in potassium.

Once the coconut is open, the inner skin of the meat is scraped off and the pulp is cut out and shredded. Hot water is added to the pulp and left to rest. Afterwards, the pulp is squeezed and the coconut milk is extracted. The remaining pulp may be used in cakes. A recipe to make coconut milk from scratch is in the recipe section. However, I suggest using canned coconut milk. Many grocery stores now carry it in their Asian food section. It is delicious and inexpensive.

Coconut milk separates into coconut milk and a thinner liquid. The cream will rise to the top and is very thick. If the recipe calls for coconut cream, simply open the can without shaking it and spoon off the cream top. Leftover liquid can be used in place of coconut milk but will not be as rich and tasty without the cream. If the recipe calls for coconut milk shake the can vigorously first then open the can. Any leftover coconut milk can be frozen up to six months or in the refrigerator for 2 days. Light coconut milk is now available in a can with the coconut cream already scooped off. Less readily available is powdered coconut milk to which you add water or the type in blocks that are heated and melted into coconut milk. Don't mistake coconut cream for cream of coconut as there is a difference. The latter is sweetened and used for mixed drinks and in some desserts; it is usually stocked in the drink mix aisle.

Coconut milk has a high fat content. It is a vegetable oil without cholesterol. However, the fat is saturated fat versus the unsaturated fat found in all vegetable oils except for palm oil. The oil is more readily digestible than other saturated fats because it has fewer residues and a shorter chain structure.

Recipes, Page 2





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