"I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts...." This still familiar song of the '20s was apparently inspired by the coconut shies popular at fairs at the turn of the 20th century. For temperate-climate dwellers, the more usual visions inspired by coconuts are of tropical idylls and exotic cuisines.
The term "coconut" is derived from the Spanish word coco which refers to the grin on a monkey's, or any other grotesque's, face, due the three "eyes" on the base of a coconut shell. It appeared in the English language only int eh 16th century. To medieval travellers, such as Marco Polo, it was known as the Nux Indica (Indian nut).
Dubbed the "tree of life", the coconut palm, Cocos Nucifera, is an invaluable crop for many tropical countries. Every part of the tree is useful. Coconut oil, extracted from the dried meat of the mature coconut (copra), is used extensively in the food industry, soap manufacture and cosmetics.
The uses of the young and mature coconuts are quite different. The young coconut ("drinking coconut") is desired for its juice and soft gelatinous flesh - essential for bona fide pina coladas. The grated flesh of the mature coconut is used as a dressing and for extracting coconut milk.
Desiccated vs Fresh Grated Coconut
Desiccated coconut has been the main form of coconut used in Western cuisine, although Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861) includes a recipe for coconut soup using fresh coconuts! Necessity is the mother of invention and a whole raft of recipes - primarily cakes and cookies - have been created in Western cuisine around desiccated coconut. The quintessentially Australian lamington, old-fashioned raspberry jam and coconut slices, gutsy chewy macaroons (not the delicate French confection) are just a few examples of where dried beats fresh hands-down.
Fresh grated coconut is essential in tropical cuisines, from Asian to Caribbean. Desiccated coconut is an unsatisfactory substitute. In her Ingredients Book, Sophie Grigson notes that the South American orange and grated coconut dish, South Ambrosia, tastes like sawdust with the substitution of desiccated for freshly grated coconut. The South Indian Thengai Pudina 'chutney' (coconut and mint chutney) that is a standard accompaniment to dosa (thin pancakes made from lentil and rice batter) would just as inedible. The Indonesian salad Urap (raw and steamed vegetables tossed with spiced grated coconut) and numerous Malaysian sweets also suffer similarly from such substitution.
Thanks to the wonders of modern transportation, fresh coconuts, both young and mature varieties are now readily available in temperate countries. To make freshly grated coconut, split the coconut in half. (This isn't easy without the right tools so I'd advise that you ask someone at the store to do this for you.) Prise the white flesh away from the shell with a small sharp knife or vegetable peeler. Grate chunks of the flesh using a food processor fitted with a fine grating disc. To obtain the same fineness as achieve with a proper coconut scraper, whiz the grated flesh in a food processor fitted with a steel blade until fine but don't reduce it to a puree!
But there's an even easier way: snap-frozen grated coconut! You'll find these in the freezer section of most Asian supermarkets. The perfume of fresh coconuts will fill your kitchen as they defrost and when you taste it, you'll be transported straight to a balmy tropical paradise. And all it takes is a pair of scissors to cut the plastic pack open. Beats all the grunt of grating your own!
Coconut Cream & Milk
Coconut milk is obtained by squeezing grated coconut flesh though muslin. In Asian cooking there are two 'grades' of coconut milk. The first extract is a thick cream, obtained by squeezing grated coconut flesh with little or no water added. Some water is then added to the fresh residue, which is then squeezed to give a thinner second extract.
Fresh coconut milk behaves like fresh milk, but has a shorter shelf life (about two days under refrigeration). A pinch of salt is sometime added to the extracts to enhance flavour and preservation.
You can extract coconut milk using defrosted grated coconut but why bother when there's really excellent quality tinned coconut cream and milk, even organic ones, available at your local supermarket? In fact, the multitude of brands on the shelves makes it very confusing as to which one to buy. Look at the small print: there should only be 1 ingredient listed on a tin of coconut cream; and water should be the only other ingredient in respect of tinned coconut milk. Those which have stabilisers and other additives are inferior products that will not deliver on fragrance and eating qualities.
Many traditional curry recipes require thick and thin coconut milks. The thin milk is added after the initial frying of the spice paste and meat. With fish and vegetable curries, the coconut milk is added to the fried spice paste and the mixture is simmered until the coconut milk and the spices meld into a harmonious sauce before adding the other ingredients so as not to overcook them.
The cream is added just before the completion of the dish to thicken the gravy. When fresh coconut milk is added, the dish must be stirred continuously and kept at no more than a simmer. Otherwise, curdling will result. Do not cover the pot (or the serving dish) whilst the curry is hot as condensation will cause rancidity.
If you have used freshly grated coconut flesh to extract milk, do not waste the flesh residue. Fried with thinly sliced garlic, salt and sugar (no oil) in a pan over moderate heat until golden brown, it makes a delicious sprinkle for various Indonesian soto (soupy dishes). It's lovely on top of rendang (spicy dry beef curry) too. You can make this with snap-frozen grated coconut flesh too.
In Southeast Asian cuisines, coconut has two close flavour companions. One is palm sugar (variously known as gula jawa or gula Melaka). This fragrant, dark to mid-caramel coloured sugar sold in rolls is made from the nectar of the flower and the sap of the Palmyra palm (Borassus flabellifer) from a different branch of the Palm (Araecaceae) family.
The other is screwpine or pandan leaves. The pandanus plant (Pandanus latifolius or P. amaryllifolius) from which these long dark green strappy leaves are cut is found in just about every backyard in south east Asia (well, in the days before apartment blocks anyway). This is the vanilla of south east Asian cuisine: its complex yet delicate fragrance enhances and adds another dimension of flavour to that of the coconut in both sweet and savoury dishes. Pandan leaves are available fresh or frozen from Asian stores. Fresh is preferable but frozen is better than no pandan at all when using recipes that call for this leaf.
KAYA: Coconut & Egg Jam
This popular Malaysian coconut and egg jam is an example of coconut with its two flavour companions. It's not "pretty" and indeed its visuals - particularly sitting alongside the likes of raspberry and other fruit jams - did raise eye brows when I brought it along to the Symposium of Australian Gastronomy a number of years ago. But one taste and it was finished off before any of the other jams! Think of it as the jam equivalent of brutti ma buoni biscotti.
Total elimination of water in all stages of the process is critical. Use only first extract of coconut i.e. coconut cream. You will also need a heatproof saucepan with a lid and a stock pot large enough to hold the saucepan.
1 ½ cups coconut cream
3 x 60 g eggs
200 g caster sugar
1 ½ tbsp water
25g palm sugar
2 pandan leaves
Place 3 tablespoons of the caster sugar with the water in a saucepan over medium heat. Dissolve the sugar, bring to the boil and cook to a golden brown caramel. Leave aside to cool.
Whisk eggs until light and fluffy. Strain through a fine sieve into the saucepan with the cooled caramel. Add remaining sugars and coconut cream.
Set a rack at the bottom of the stock pot and fill it with enough water to come up to about a quarter way up the saucepan when you place the saucepan into the pot. Bring water to a gentle boil and set the saucepan on the rack. The saucepan must not be in direct contact with the bottom of the pot.
Cook the mixture, stirring continuously until the caramel is dissolved and the mixture is treacly. Knot the pandan leaves into a small bundle and add to the mixture. Wrap the saucepan lid with a tea towel (to absorb condensation) and cover the saucepan tightly. Cover the pot and steam for 1 ½ hours - or until the mixture become a thick custard - keeping water at a gentle boil. Stir every 3 -4 minutes in the first half hour and occasionally thereafter to prevent lumps forming.
Allow the jam to cool, uncovered. Remove leaves and refrigerate. It will keep for around 3 weeks.
Spread generously on hot buttered toast - as shown in the picture - and enjoy!