Hi, gang. This week, I spent a lot of time testing recipes that required coconut. The recipes are mostly Indonesian and African, and call for shredded coconut, chunks of coconut, and coconut milk. It’s not that I was jonesing for Southeast Asian or African food, or even coconut—it was a decision of practicality. I decided that if I was going to go to the trouble of cracking open a coconut and working to get the meat out, I’d might as well do two coconuts at once and have enough for all the recipes that require it. So that’s what I did. Now I have some in the refrigerator and put a container of it it in the freezer.
The two recipes I concentrated on developing were Indonesian urap and Nigerian yam salad. Urap is a vegetable salad that contains shredded coconut and is flavored with a spicy dressing of garlic, galangal or ginger, tamarind, and sambal ulek (a spicy chile paste).
Detour to Yams
The yam salad is very much like a potato salad, except that it’s made with yams and a coconut-based dressing. Yams should not be confused with sweet potoatoes. Americans have mistakenly come to know sweet potatoes as yams(especially, for some reason, around the holidays). But the red-fleshed tubers are not yams. Yams are white-fleshed with rough dark brown skin and are starchier and less sweet than sweet potatoes But they are a crucial crop in Africa. They’re not easy to find in the U.S., but where you might find them is in Latin markets, or a market that has a Latin produce section. In these cases, you will find yams under the name namé (nah-MAY). (They also go by the names tropical yam or true yam). Throughout Africa, Yams are a symbol of fertility and renewal and are honored with festivals. There are many myths and legends surrounding yams. One such legend, from Mali, says that criminals were beheaded in a ritualistic fashion in the yam fields so that their blood could fertilize the crops.
Anyway, Back to Coconuts
So, it was back to the produce aisle for a “regular” coconut. (I’ll be honest, though, I’ve never tried frozen coconut. Although I hear that it is very similar to fresh.) The trick to opening a coconut is to poke holes in the coconut’s “eyes” with a hammer and screwdriver or—my preferred implement—an awl. Drain the water out, then pound away where you’ve made the holes with a hammer until it cracks. Pry it open and crack it into two pieces. Place the pieces on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. Pry the meat out in pieces with a knife—CAREFULLY. Then peel the dark skin off the pieces. If you need the coconut shredded, do it either on a box grater or in a food processor with the shredder blade on. And there you have it.
What I’ve learned about coconuts is that nothing really compares with fresh coconut right from the shell. I’ve picked up canned coconut from my local Asian market and…well…BLEECCCHHH!!!! Can you tell I didn’t like it? The texture was weird and the flavor was weird. Dessicated coconut can be rehydrated but it’s not quite as fresh tasting.
Also at the Asian market, I purchased a “young coconut.” This is a coconut that has had the outermost layer removed but not the fibrous layer surrounding the hard, brown shell we usually see. The hard, brown shell (in a young coconut) is thin and not as difficult to break. But once you get inside, there’s very little meat. What there is is quite tender and creamy but it really can’t be used in many recipes. (Often, you’ll see people drinking straight from a young coconut that’s had its top sliced off or poked.)
If you’re not quite grasping the layers-of-a-coconut thing, here’s an explanation from Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress: “The coconut we buy in the store does not resemble the coconut you find growing on a coconut palm. An untouched coconut has three layers. The outermost layer, which is typically smooth with a greenish color, is called the exocarp. The next layer is the fibrous husk, or mesocarp, which ultimately surrounds the hard woody layer called the endocarp. The endocarp surrounds the seed. Generally speaking, when you buy a coconut at the supermarket the exocarp and the mesocarp are removed and what you see is the endocarp.”
One more thing. Don’t confuse these various coconut products: coconut water, coconut juice, coconut milk, coconut cream, and cream of coconut.
Coconut water: This is the liquid that is inside a coconut. It can be consumed right from the coconut or used in drinks and food.
Coconut juice: Another name for coconut water. However, you will sometimes find cans of “coconut juice” that are actually flavored drinks. They start with coconut water and sometimes add things like sugar and other ingredients. Always check the ingredients.
Coconut milk: Coconut milk is made by taking grated coconut meat and squeezing the liquid out of it. Handmade milk is made using cheesecloth; commercial milk is machine-pressed.
Coconut cream: This is coconut milk that has a lower water content and is, therefore, thicker.
Cream of coconut: This is sweetened coconut cream. This product is used in desserts and drinks. Think Coco Lopez and those yummy piña coladas.
More Fascinating Coconut Facts
Here are some more interesting bits about coconuts from Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress:
* Every bit of the coconut is used. As a result, coconuts are called the “Tree of Life” and can produce drink, fiber, food, fuel, utensils, musical instruments, and much more.
* When intra-venous (IV) solution was in short supply, doctors during World War II and Vietnam used coconut water in substitution of IV solutions.
* Botanically, the coconut palm is not a tree since there is no bark, no branches, or secondary growth. A coconut palm is a woody perennial monocotyledon with the trunk being the stem.
* Possibly the oldest reference is from Cosmas, a 5th century AD Egyptian traveler. He wrote about the “Indian nut” or “nut of India” after visiting India and Ceylon, Some scholars believe Cosmas was describing a coconut.
* Soleyman, an Arab merchant, visited China in the 9th century and describes the use of coir fiber and toddy made from coconuts.
* In 16th century, Sir Francis Drake called coconut “nargils”, which was the common term used until the 1700’s when the word coconut was established.
* It takes 11 -12 months for the coconut to mature.
* At one time scientists identified over 60 species of Cocos palm. Today, the coconut is a monotypic with one species, nucifera. However, there are over 80 varieties of coconut palms, which are defined by characteristics such as dwarf and tall.
* Coconut growing regions are as far north as Hawaii and as far south as Madagascar.
So, think about that the next time you’re biting into that coconut macaroon or drinking a piña colada. Food has a history all its own and someone somewhere had to discover it and figure out what to do with it. It didn’t just show up on the menu one day.
Okay, thanks for popping in and I’ll see you next time. Have a great week, everyone.