Two eyes, one nose, brown wiry hair. It’s easy to see how the sixteenth-century Spanish and Portuguese explorers thought the three markings on a coconut we now call eyes, resembled a monkey’s face. And so the word coco (Spanish for head) became the root of the generic name cocos, from which our anglicised name for the food is derived.
In spite of its name, the coconut is actually a drupe, like a peach, olive, or avocado. It is rich in the health promoting medium-chain fatty acids, particularly lauric acid, known for being antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal. Coconut oil is very stable, easy to digest, and can stimulate the metabolism. The water and flesh of the young coconut are nutritionally superior to that of the mature drupe. Soft as a melon, the pliable, creamy flesh can be scraped out with a spoon and has a delicate fruity flavour. In traditional medicine, it has been used to treat heart, thyroid, liver, kidney and digestive disorders, in addition to managing inflammation, building immunity, and alleviating external skin problems.
Practically all parts of the plant can be used, for items such as: wood from the trunk, roofing or weaving materials from the leaves, ropes from the fibrous husks, food, drink or decorative utensils from the shells, to name a few.
Coconut trees bear fruit when they are between 7 and 10 years old. Once the drupe forms, they take a year to reach maturity. Many raw food recipes call for young coconuts, which are typically aged between 6 and 9 months. You can buy these green with its protective outer husk intact, but more typically, they are available as a pale biscuit colour where the green shell has been shaved off. To protect the exposed skin from bacteria and mould, it is sprayed with strong chemicals and then wrapped in plastic. It was widely rumoured that the spray used was formaldehyde, but evidence to back this up was scarce, and many believed the pale husk was dense enough to form an effective barrier so it didn’t contaminate the contents. You have to make your own mind up about this: for those lucky enough to be able to compare taste between the green version and the beige one, green wins.
In the UK, young coconuts can be hard to find – or simply too expensive to buy regularly. This often means people are put off from using them, or they end up with pre-packaged and often highly refined by-products instead. Do be aware that in relation to coconut oil, at least, quality can vary dramatically. Look for the term organic and cold pressed on the label. Unlike olive oil, the terms virgin, extra virgin, and even raw when applied to coconut are not regulated or controlled. Many brands are crudely processed by chemical extraction with solvents to get quicker, higher yields; this is usually reflected in lower prices. The resultant oils can contain chemical residues, and are hydrogenated, bleached and deodorized. Some forms of dried coconut are sweetened and have glycerine added – so always check the label: if it is non-specific about processing, presume less care.
One way to ensure you get a quality product is to process the raw ingredient in your own kitchen, and I want to encourage you to be more adventurous with more commonly found, affordable brown coconuts. The mature meat inside them is solid, pure white, and sweeter than the young ones. Whilst it may not always be possible to substitute them successfully in recipes that call for the gel-like young flesh, in cases when it doesn’t really matter, as when you want cream, oil, or it is one of the background items in a recipe for instance, please give them a try. For a comparatively modest sum, you can end up with a whole spectrum of home-produced items, from: water, cream, milk, oil, flour, and desiccated shreds. The taste difference, like most things you make yourself, is incomparable to the bought version.
Here are some tips for dealing with them:
- only buy heavy coconuts where you can hear the water sloshing about when shaken Reject dry coconuts, or those with mouldy eyes
- drain it of the water by testing for the weak eye with the tip of a corkscrew (there is always a soft one) and pierce it
- now crack the shell to access the meat. You don’t need to do anything heroic for this. Simply hold the coconut in one hand, and using the back of a heavy knife, or perhaps a rolling pin in the other, firmly tap around the equator (the fullest girth). It will split with three or four phwacks
- extract the meat by putting the blade of a flexible knife between the shell and the meat and easing them apart, going around the rim of the shell and pressing towards the centre
There is no need to be concerned about the thin brown inner skin, but if the aesthetics are important to you, use a standard vegetable peeler to remove it.
Now you have a beautiful pile of snowy coconut meat, which you can of course, simply eat as is. Store what you don’t eat immediately in the fridge, as it is fresh and once exposed to air, will decay within a few days. Alternatively, you can process further to make several different products. Let’s try to get clear on what these are:
water or juice – the clear liquid inside the cavity.Superbly hydrating as a drink – sieve it of small particles beforehand
milk – made by grating the fresh meat and blending it with water (or watering down the cream)
cream – made by pressing the meat so fats and water separate from the fibre
butter – made by repeated pressing of full fat, dried coconut
oil – extracted by pressing mature meat and leaving the curd to separate from the oil
copra – dried, extracted mature meat
flesh – usually the silky, young, jelly-like pulp
shreds or desiccated pieces – the dried fibre which has had some fat extracted
In terms of equipment, if you have a blender you can whiz the broken up flesh with more liquid for soups, smoothies, or sauces. If you have a masticating juicer, such as a Champion or Omega, then you can add butter, cream, or oils to your repertoire. Simply switch the use of blanking plates or screens. A dehydrator or warm airing cupboard is useful for drying out the fibre for longer term storage.
Watch this preparation of a truly fresh coconut in the field
For a visual demonstration of how to physically process your meat, watch the comprehensive video by John Koehler