By SANDRA SUKHAN
If you live in the tropics for any length of time, you know that the ubiquitous coconut is on every street corner and in every home. It takes so long for Nature to grow a coconut (which is just a big seed) into a mature tree that to desecrate “the Tree of Life,” as it is affectionately referred to in many countries where it is grown, is almost sinful. In Sanskrit, coconut literally means “God’s fruit.”
There are probably as many misunderstandings about this precious plant as there are uses, including whether it’s a fruit or a nut; thinking coconut milk and coconut water are the same; or assuming that the brown nut often seen in supermarkets is the whole coconut.
A deconstruction of the coconut’s anatomy will help explain its many uses throughout its life cycle.
The coconut has several layers. When it’s young, the outer shell is either green or yellow, depending on the variety of coconut. The next layer is the coconut fibre, referred to as the husk in the Caribbean. The husk is the colour of butter when young and the colour of dark caramel when mature. It has a multitude of uses, including as a “smoker” when burned to keep mosquitoes away; mattress padding when it’s completely dry; rope when it’s shredded and braided; and as a basket liner or filler for hanging plants.
As a child in Guyana, I slept on a coconut fibre mattress I helped stuff when it was being made. I also had my fair share of sitting around evening smoke heaps when vacationing at my aunt’s house in the country as we tried to keep mosquitoes and sand flies at bay. The smoke from the coconut husk was our bug repellent.
Removing the husk is no easy task. When I was a child, my father would plant a crowbar deep in the dirt, take hold of a coconut and, with great skill and accuracy, plunge the fruit into the crowbar repeatedly to loosen the husk so it could gradually be pulled away. To this day I am surprised that when I tried to imitate my father I did not impale myself on the crowbar.
The next layer is the hard, inner shell. This is the outer layer we typically see in Canada, where the husk has already been removed.
In a young coconut, the inner shell is butter coloured and somewhat easy to crack with the firm hit of a heavy cleaver. In a mature fruit, it’s dark caramel and much harder to break apart. It takes a few sharp hits – with considerable skill if you don’t want to whack off a finger or two. I’ve been known to pelt it down on a concrete pavement in the hope that it would shatter. But that is not the most practical way to get at the delicious water in the centre of the coconut, for obvious reasons. (The shell, by the way, is sometimes cut, sanded smooth and polished or varnished to a sheen to make ornaments. It’s also used as kindling or firewood because of its natural oil and hardness, which makes it burn for a long time.)
If you persevere long enough to crack the coconut’s shell, you’ll be rewarded with a cornucopia of goodness. The water that streams out when the inner shell of a young coconut is broken is the purest, most perfect electrolyte drink – far superior to the flavoured sports drinks you can buy in stores.
For people with high blood pressure who need to manage magnesium and potassium levels, coconut water is the ideal beverage, along with a small amount of sodium and calcium. When my dad had cancer, I made electrolyte drinks using a base of coconut water. I’d blend in small amounts of pineapple, strawberry or other fruits to vary the flavour, and he quite liked it.
Chilled coconut water from a ripe fruit has just the right amount of sweetness to quench a deep thirst; and, as a bonus, it’s the perfect mix for vodka or a seasoned Caribbean rum. As a nondrinker, I enjoy tilting my head back and gulping the water directly from a freshly cut coconut as I savour the coolness in my mouth and the trickles running down my neck.
Unfortunately, the water inside a typical supermarket coconut is not so delectable. Much of it has already been absorbed into the jelly, or meat, of the coconut – the familiar white part.
In a perfectly ripe coconut, the jelly is just that, a thick, soft, translucent layer. Its combination of chewiness and softness makes the decision to slurp or bite it a hard one! As the fruit continues to mature, the water in its centre is absorbed into the jelly, making the jelly thicker. Eventually, it hardens into the delicious “white meat” most people know as coconut. This meat can be used fresh or dry in recipes calling for grated, shredded or dried, desiccated coconut.
Coconut milk is simply the product of squeezing finely grated, fresh coconut meat. Thick, rich and laden with calories, coconut milk is sometimes used by vegans as a substitute for milk from animals. Don’t confuse it with coconut water! They are not interchangeable. The milk has about 500 calories per cup; pure (not from concentrate) coconut water has about 50.
When I was a child in Guyana in the 1960s and food was being rationed by the British, many people turned to coconut oil for cooking. My mother would grate the coconut, put it in a pot and slow cook it until the oil was extracted as the meat turned dark golden brown. She bottled the oil for cooking, dressing our hair and oiling our skin. The residual copra (the browned meat) was destined to be fed to cattle, but not before my siblings and I would save half a cup to mix with sugar as a crunchy little snack.
One traditional use of the coconut has nothing to do with eating it. This symbolic use is an important aspect of the Hindu religion. I recall from childhood my dad doing pujas (prayers) that involved a coconut. It didn’t occur to me to ask why at the time; but in later years, I wondered, so I asked my friend’s father, a pandit (Hindu scholar). He explained that the coconut is used symbolically in some pujas as a substitute for animal sacrifice. I asked why a coconut and not a mango or some other fruit. After gently chiding me for asking too many questions, the pandit explained that, many years ago, an official Council of Pandits decided to use the coconut because it looks much like the head of a person, and when it is broken open and the water runs out, it is symbolic of an animal’s blood being spilled during a sacrifice.
In some pujas, the coconut is used to represent man’s ego. Breaking the coconut symbolizes the shattering of the ego to reveal (or aspire to) supreme knowledge and enlightenment, symbolized by the coconut’s water and meat, respectively. At the end of a puja, the coconut meat is sometimes served as parsad (blessed food) along with other sweets. Partaking of it is an acceptance that you are ready to embrace the gift of supreme knowledge, or, at the very least, some sublime nourishment.
Winnipeg writer Sandra Sukhan was born and raised in Guyana. She recently published a cookbook of some of her favourite recipes, including traditional Guyanese food. To order a copy of Comfort Food From Sandra’s Kitchen: Guyanese and Other Favourites, contact her at email@example.com or 204-488-2628.
Yield: 15–18 buns or 1 loaf
3 c. flour
1 c. cane sugar (or other)
3 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. grated nutmeg
1 c. cold butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp. almond extract
2 c. fresh or frozen grated coconut
1/2 c. currants hydrated in 2 tsp. water in microwave for 30 seconds
2–4 tbsp. milk, if needed
1/2 c. cherries cut into quarters
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Cut in butter and mix until it resembles pea-sized crumbs. Add eggs and almond extract.
Gently fold the coconut, currants and cherries into the mixture. Dough should be soft but not loose. If dough is too hard, add milk to soften.
Drop one rounded tablespoon of dough about 3 inches apart on parchment-lined baking sheets (the buns will spread so do not put them any closer together).
Bake for 12–15 minutes until golden.
If making loaf, pour the batter into a well-greased 9″ loaf pan. Bake for one hour or until skewer inserted in centre comes out dry.
Recipe from Comfort Food from Sandra’s Kitchen, by Sandra Sukhan. To buy a copy, call or email Sandra at (204) 488-2628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.