#VeryLongPostAlert #NotARecipePost #Coconut101 #LotsaPictures - A comprehensive guide to coconut.
This post has been in the drafts for a pretty long time - almost one and half years. This is a sort of a dream post, that I have been adding to, deleting from and modifying a bit of this and that for the past one and half years. It never seemed complete and perfect, but I now I think it is almost complete, but it would never seem perfect to me. There is so much that I have to tell you about coconut, I found it hard to narrow it down.
Finally it is seeing the light of the day.
The idea of this post started on a whim... One day, I was browsing through my own blog taking stock of what I have published till then, and I realized majority of the recipes use coconut as one of the ingredients. But if you know me, that is not a surprise at all. If you don't know me, read About Us and get to know me better.
I love anything that uses coconut - in any form - desiccated coconut, coconut milk, coconut water, tender coconut flesh. I grew up in Kerala, the land of coconut trees (in fact the name Kerala is derived from the Malayalam word, "Kera" meaning coconut). I am a Konkani married to a Malayali and grew up in Kerala; so the dishes that I grew up eating are mostly coconut based. Though I make dishes from different cuisines from all around the world, the dishes I predominantly make, use coconut. I grew up in houses that had coconut trees in the back yard and it was a monthly ritual to collect coconuts from the trees. So, by having so many recipes that use coconut, it was only natural that I give this ingredient the due respect.
Now that I have established the background for this post, let me start with Coconut 101.
[The photographs in this post have been taken over a period of one and a half years - you will see that we have shot these pictures at different locations and different times of the day. Some of the pictures are taken at our home in the US and some are taken in Kerala. A special thanks to the patient hand models- my mom-in-law and my better-half - without your help, this post would not have been possible.]
Lush green paddy fields, and coconut trees swaying in the gentle afternoon breeze - this is the scene from my in-laws backyard. Their backyard is lined with paddy fields (rice fields) and bordered by the tall coconut trees. This picture is courtesy of my husband's cousin, Prajith.
Coconut tree is a tall tree with no branches. The leaves are large and form a tuft at the top of the tree - some sort of crowning glory. The coconut bunches are seen at the top of the tree.
There are no branches to hold onto when climbing the tree and that makes it extremely tricky to climb. Climbing the tree requires skill and expertise and there are specially skilled workers to do this job. The only "special equipment" they use to climb the trees is a rope tied around their ankles. This rope acts as an anchor and also provides them with necessary grip to climb. It used to be a man's work for a long time. But I hear that some of the women folk in Kerala are getting trained in this area. The fact that women are doing this male-dominated job is cited as a revolution of sorts in gender equality too.
The climbers carry a special axe/sickle with them while climbing the tree and then once they reach the top, they would chop the coconut bunch down. Once all the coconuts are cut down from one tree, they repeat the task with other coconut trees. Yes, it is a very labor intensive job.
Coconut is a nature's miracle to protect the seed. A thick outer covering of fibrous material, followed by a hard shell, protects the seed. What you would typically find in a super market/grocery store would be de-husked coconut.
But before using the coconut that you just "plucked" from the tree, you have to de-husk them before you can use them. Special tools are available in the market to de-husk the coconuts. Typically, the tuft of the husk that covers the "three eyes" of the coconut would be left undisturbed.
Back in India, my in-laws used to bring us coconut whenever they visited us in Bangalore. I would stock up on the coconut and use it sparingly so that the stock would last till they visited us next time. My in-laws would bring the de-husked (but the tuft still intact) coconut and I was always instructed to store the coconut in a cool dry place with this tuft facing upwards. This was to prolong the life of the coconut to prevent it from going rancid.
I have seen many people suggesting the use of hammer to break the hard coconut shell. There was one author who jokingly suggested wearing eye protection gear while doing so. Last year we visited Florida and we saw a vendor selling tender coconut water. We were quite fascinated to see that he was drilling holes into the whole coconut to insert the plastic straw.
Using hammer to break a coconut was sorta unheard in Kerala. We used to break coconuts using large knives back in India. I am used to halving the coconut using a thick big sickle like contraption and then grating it. But now, I use my Chef's knife to break a coconut. A knife to break a coconut? Unheard of? Here are some pictures to prove that you can do this by hand using just a chef's knife.
Hold the coconut (with the eyes facing to the side) in your left hand (or your right hand if you are left-handed) and the chef's knife on your right (or left if you are left-handed) with blunt end of the knife facing the coconut. Find the center of the coconut and hit the knife gently on the coconut.
Rotate/turn the coconut slightly to cover more area to tap/gently hit the coconut. Make sure you always hit in (almost) a perfect circle (this takes a little practice, don't give up). You will see small cracks forming around the center of the coconut. Be careful at this point, I have gotten pinched between the coconut shells many a times. Using the tip of your knife try to widen the crack, and gently tap more if required. The coconut will break open soon.
Speaking from experience, it takes a while to get used to the technique. I was so sacred of cutting myself, that I used to dread the thought. But it is a matter of getting used to. If you are trying this approach, be careful till you get the hang of the technique. But it is doable and this is how the locals do it in the land of coconut.
Look at all that nutrient rich coconut water. Don't let it go waste. Collect the coconut water in a cup and enjoy it. The fresh coconut water from the coconuts that grow in my in-laws backyard is really sweet and sometimes with a little zing to it. I have never tasted anything like i,t ever. Everything else falls short of that taste. The coconuts I get in the US stores do not have the sweetness nor the zing. I do not use the water. I just throw it way.
Getting the flesh out of the coconut - Grating a coconut.
I have seen many people breaking the coconut with a hammer, removing chunks of coconut using a knife and mincing it in a food processor or mixer grinder. But folks, that is not how we do it in Kerala.
In Kerala, the land of coconuts, you grate it.
I have a special kitchen equipment that I got from India. It is called "Chirava" in Malayalam and "Kanthaane" in Konkani. I used to have a bigger version of this back in India, but for the sake of bringing it in a small suitcase,we bought a very small one for about 250 Indian Rupee (about $4). You place a tray in front of its blades to collect the grated coconut.
This contraption has sharp serrated edges to help in grating the coconut. Holding the coconut at an angle, you move the coconut up and down grating it.
The grated coconut shreds are collected in the tray placed in the front.
There are modern versions of this gadget, which can be attached to the counter top with a vacuum seal or with a nut & bolt method. I find the latter one more safe than the first one. Please note that I am not recommending any particular brand here. I have not personally used any of these brands, but I feel the nut & bolt method is more sturdy and safe.
Bits of coconut
Some Kerala dishes use small bits of coconut, mainly for garnish. The aroma of the roasted coconut is absolutely divine. One of the dishes that uses this coconut pieces is the Koottukari, a prominent dish in the sadya.
Place a half of the coconut you just broke on a flat hard surface. I use a paring knife to slice the coconut and then to chop into bits.
Holding the coconut shell firmly in your hand, your hand, slice a small piece of coconut flesh, along the circumference of the coconut.
Now, chop these slices into small pieces.
Coconut milk is used a lot in a variety of ways in the Kerala and Konkani cuisine. To make fresh coconut milk, you use freshly grated coconut.
Squeeze the meat tightly with your hand and collect the thick coconut milk in a cup (To make it easier, you may sprinkle a wee bit of hot water before squeezing the coconut meat). Depending on the quantity and quality of the coconut flesh, the quantity of the milk varies, but trust me, this is the best way to extract the thickest, creamiest and BEST first pressed coconut milk, called "onnaam paal" in Malayalam.
Now, we can extract the "randaam paal" or the second pressed milk. The coconut will be sprinkled with hot water and the process is repeated till all the milk is extracted. Some times, "moonnaam paal" or third pressed milk (which will be very dilute but definitely flavorful) is extracted.
But these days, you can use the Indian style mixer grinder and a muslin cloth to extract the milk. To extract the onnaam paal, grind the grated coconut with out adding any water. Sprinkle some water, and grind some more to extract randaam paal and so on.
Onnaam paal is considered very delicate and curdles fast when heated. So care should be taken while adding this. Randaam paal and moonnam paal are not so delicate and can be used while the dish is hot or is on stove.
These days, I use the coconut milk that comes in can/ tetra packs for convenience. If you have ever tasted the freshly extracted coconut milk, the coconut milk that comes in the can and tetra pack feel like torture.
There was a time when coconut oil was frowned upon and was not considered a healthy oil. Studies keep changing every now & then and now coconut oil is deemed as one of the healthiest oils available now.
Extracting coconut oil is long tedious process. The coconut is halved, dried in the sun and the meat easily removed from the hard shell. At this stage, the dried fruit is called "Kopra" in Malayalam. There are specialized mills where these dried coconut is ground and oil is extracted.
There is another style of oil extraction. I was introduced to this method by a friend of mine who had the longest and blackest hair I know. She told me she applies it regularly on her hair. In my teens, after I learned this method, I have also extracted oil at home and applied on my hair. Oh, the aroma!
The second method of extraction is to first extract the coconut milk and heat it to extract the coconut oil. It takes a while to collect oil from the coconut milk. But it was worth the effort. This oil would be thicker and heavier than the regular coconut oil (and my hair grew luxuriously thick 🙂 ). Do not attempt this method of extracting oil from canned coconut milk. The preservatives in the canned coconut milk prevents the oil extraction.
DIY Beauty Uses of coconut
Apart from being used in cooking, coconut has found many uses in DIY beauty care.
- According to me, the Kerala women adorn the most luxurious, thick, jet black hair. Of course, a lot of it is the gene pool. But they nourish their hair with fresh coconut oil. Massage it into the hair, and wash off with herbal concoctions instead of shampoo.
- One of my friends suggested this home remedy for dandruff - scrub your hair with freshly grated coconut meat. It acts as a gentle scrub dislodging the dandruff flakes, where as the natural oils nourish your hair. This method gets a little bit messy (speaking from experience), remember to clean the hair well.
- In my teen years, I used to have lots of pimples. As per my mother's suggestion (she heard it from her colleague), I used to apply on my face, a little bit of fresh coconut water (after washing it with soap and water) and leave it on for a few minutes and rinse off with water. It helped me clear the acne a lot and made my face glow too.
- Though I personally do not like using coconut oil as a moisturizer (I feel it forms an unpleasant layer especially during winters), there are millions who swear by it.
Coconut - the Kalpavrukhsha
In Kerala and Coastal India, where you would find the coconut trees in abundance, Coconut tree is considered to be the Kalpavruksha or the tree that fulfills your wishes.
Almost all Hindu rituals use coconut and is considered as a divine, pure and unadulterated fruit. There is a belief that the three eyes of the coconut symbolize the trinity of Hindu religion - Lord Brahma (the creator), Lord Vishnu (the lord of preservation) and Lord Shiva (the destroyer). There is a belief that if you break a coconut in front of the Lord Vighneshwara (or Lord Ganesha, the destroyer of obstacles), all the obstacles in front of you will disappear.
It is not surprising that the people in coastal India have found out that every part of this tree can be put to use - Of course the coconut has found uses in culinary and cosmetic uses. The leaves when dried are used to make mats, and the mid ribs of the coconut leaves are used to make broom sticks, the husks are used to make coir and also used as firewood, the coconut tree trunk as firewood, and temporary bridges across small streams in rural areas. The trunk also has its uses in construction as well as making furniture.
Due to the abundance of the coconut trees and the divinity associated with the tree, almost all Hindu marriages in Kerala, the bunch of coconut flowers are considered auspicious and is always given prominence and importance during ceremonies.
Some Nostalgia, Sentiments, recollections and confessions.
- I took coconut for granted back in India. These were easily available and always in surplus, so it was hard not to take it for granted. Moving to the US, changed that. I do find whole coconut at grocery stores, but there is no guarantee that they would be the good quality ones. And my benchmark for these coconuts are the ones from Kerala. There is no comparison there - the ones form Kerala win hands down.
- The closest to "fresh" coconut water that I have found here in the US are the ones from Kirkland Brand and Harvest bay coconut water.
- I do not buy whole coconut from the grocery stores here. I rely heavily on the frozen desiccated coconut that I buy from Indian grocery stores.
- The photos you see in this post are taken over a period of one and a half years, shot at different locations, different light settings. You will even see the difference in the fonts that we have used for the copyright messages on the pics.
It was fun writing the post, toying with the idea for over a year and then finally hitting the "publish" button 🙂 . Let me know what you think about the article in the comments. I always look forward to your feedback.
Check this out: Dishes that use coconut.
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Till we meet again…