Evidence shows that coconuts existed northwest of Papua, New Guinea, in land areas submerged in water, as early as 20 million B.C. Coconuts have the ability to float in the sea for months and sprout into tall palm trees when they reach land. Because they self-propagated along the coastal areas of the southern seas, India benefited from this gloriously victorious fruit of the cocos nucifera tree.
Every part of the coconut tree can be used: We carve canoes from its generous trunk and use its leaves as roof material to thatch houses. We cook with the nut and fruit and drink its water. The fibrous husk helps us scrub pots, and even acts as a loofa in the shower. The fibers also can be woven into baskets, chairs and mats, and the coconut’s ladle-like empty shell is multifunctional. Coconuts (there are many varieties) represent marital harmony, fertility and even the souls of departed loved ones in religious ceremonies.
Coconut meat, thick and white, is used for daily cooking along India’s coasts. Curries devoid of coconut are like a mother who has lost a child — empty and very sad!
Choosing a ripe coconut
The question students ask me most is how to tell whether a coconut’s meat is sweet without cracking it open. Here are a few pointers. Lift the coconut to feel its weight. It should be heavy. Shake it to hear its water splash inside against the shell. If you are met with silence, chances are the meat inside is rotten. Choose a fruit that has dry eyes (the three indentations on the end of the coconut that attaches to the palm tree).
Breaking the coconut open is the surefire way to determine whether the meat is OK. Rinse the shell under water. Place the coconut in one hand, and a hammer or meat pounder in the other. Gently but firmly tap the coconut along its midsection, moving it around freely as you continue tapping. As soon as the shell cracks open, the water inside will gush out (so make sure to have a medium-sized bowl to catch the sweet, off-white liquid). If the water is sweet, the meat will be, too. If the water tastes rancid, the meat is likely rotten.
Removing coconut meat from the shell
Once you ascertain the freshness of the meat, take a sharp paring knife and score it, delineating large pieces, until the knife hits the shell. Gently pry the pieces from the shell with a firm butter knife. Peel the thin, dark brown skin and place the white meat in a food processor. Pulse into small shreds.
In India, we use a coconut grater (a barbaric-looking implement) to get the meat from the shell without any hassles. A medium-sized coconut will yield 2 to 3 cups shredded meat. The unused portion can be frozen for up to two months. Indian and Southeast Asian grocery stores stock freshly shredded coconut meat in their freezers. Dried, unsweetened, shredded coconut (sometimes sold as powder) is also available in major supermarkets and natural food stores. One-half cup dried unsweetened meat is comparable to one cup freshly shredded. I often reconstitute a half cup dried unsweetened coconut in a half cup boiling water for about 15 minutes (drain excess water before use) for that freshly shredded taste. If you are desperate, purchase sweetened, shredded coconut and soak it in hot water and drain. Then repeat the process three or four times to get rid of as much sugar as possible.
Quick Homemade Coconut Milk
To make coconut milk, puree one cup of shreds in a blender with one cup of water and then pour through a fine-meshed strainer. The first, thick-bodied, milky liquid contains the most concentrated flavor. When you dilute the coconut puree with another cup water and strain, you get a weaker-tasting liquid, often referred to as thin coconut milk. The taste is amazing in both versions.
That said, canned coconut milk is perfectly acceptable for curries. Some brands are better than others — look for one the consistency of heavy whipping cream. Shelf-stable coconut powders are also available, and you can mix them with water to get “not bad” milk. Below is an addictive recipe that showcases the beauty of coconut in two forms.
Mangalorean Chicken Curry With Tamarind and Coconut Milk
Gassis are thick, coconut milk-based curries from Mangalore, in southwestern India. Tart with tamarind, they are also complex thanks to assertive roasted spices like chiles, fenugreek and peppercorns. This classic curry incorporates poultry, but fish and other meats are also fair game. Two forms of coconut — shreds and milk — surprisingly do not overpower the curry, so all you coconut-phobes out there, go ahead and indulge. Mound it over red or white rice.
- In a bowl combine the coconut, coriander seeds, poppy seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, peppercorns and chiles in a small bowl and drizzle the teaspoon of oil over them. Stir well to make sure the spices get coated.
- Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil-coated spices and cook, stirring constantly to prevent from burning, until the coconut and seeds turn reddish brown, and the chiles blacken slightly. Scrape mixture into a blender jar.
- While the skillet is still hot, drizzle in the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, which will instantly heat up and appear to shimmer. Add the onion and garlic, and stir to coat with the oil. Lower the heat to medium, cover the skillet, and cook, stirring occasionally. The vegetables will initially sweat and release their moisture, and once that evaporates, start to brown and soften. This takes about 15 to 20 minutes.
- While the onion and garlic are cooking, add ¼ cup water to the roasted spices in the blender jar. Puree, scraping the inside of the jar as needed, to make a thick, slightly gritty paste. With the blender running, drizzle in another ¼ cup water and grind the paste to a smoother consistency. (If you pour the entire ½ cup water in at once, the spices will be swimming in too much liquid and the blender won’t be able to grind the ingredients.)
- Once the onion and garlic have browned, push them to the sides of the skillet to make room for the chicken pieces. Add the chicken, meat side down. Pile the onion mixture on top to blanket the pieces. Cover the skillet, and cook until the chicken is browned, 5 to 7 minutes on each side.
- Push the chicken and onion to the sidelines (or transfer them to a plate if the skillet is too crowded), and add the spice paste to the skillet. Pour the coconut milk into the blender jar, swish it around to wash the inside, and add the washings to the skillet. Stir in the tamarind paste, salt and curry leaves. Scrape the bottom of the skillet to deglaze it, releasing any browned bits of chicken and onion.
- Bring the chicken and onion back to the center of the skillet. Tilt the skillet to scoop the sauce up with a spoon and baste the chicken. Cover the skillet and simmer, basting the chicken occasionally, until the meat in the thickest parts is no longer pink inside and the juices run clear, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the skillet and arrange on a serving platter.
- Continue to simmer the sauce vigorously, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the curry is gravy-thick, 5 to 8 minutes.
- Pour the sauce over the chicken, and serve.
Fresh curry leaves are common in Indian grocery stores as well as in Southeast Asian shops (where they’re called daun kari) that cater to Malaysian-Americans. Look for fresh leaves in the produce section — dried leaves have an insipid aroma and aren’t suitable for this curry.
If curry leaves are unavailable, simply leave out of the recipe — there is no alternative or substitute for their unique flavors and aromas. The leaves of this small tree (Murraya koenigii), a member of the citrus family, are widely used along India’s coastal areas, especially the southeast, south, southwest, and northwest in sauces (the tamil word kari-karhi means sauce, and leaves plucked to perfume the sauces are “kari-karhi” leaves). We use them like bay leaves, simmering a few in a sauce to delicately perfume it (we don’t eat them, but they are perfectly edible, so go ahead and try some). Spice blends also feature curry leaves prominently. They are subtle even in large amounts, but when sizzled in hot oil, taste more intense.
Zester Daily contributor Raghavan Iyer is a cookbook author, culinary educator, spokesperson and consultant to numerous national and international clients, including General Mills, Bon Appetit Management Company, Target and Canola. He co-founded the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes, Ltd. and has written three cookbooks, most recently the award-winning “660 Curries.” His articles have appeared in Eating Well, Fine Cooking, Saveur and Gastronomica, and he has been a guest on TV and radio shows throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Top photo: Salmon with coconut cream sauce, pappadum and mango chutney. Credit: Raghavan Iyer
Slide show credit: Raghavan Iyer