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Reconsidering Coconut

Workers shell coconut in Vietnam

Workers shell coconut in Vietnam

For years I had dismissed coconut as merely the main ingredient in macaroons, cream pies and piña coladas, and what I added to curries to reduce their heat. That it held more cultural importance and culinary pizazz didn’t dawn on me until I traveled through Southeast Asia. There I witnessed how essential and versatile this fruit is.

Native to Malaysia, the towering cocos nucifera, or coconut palm tree, grows in tropical and subtropical climates. Thanks to medieval Spanish and Portuguese explorers who transported it across the ocean, the tree thrives in South America, the Pacific Islands, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and other steamy, coastal locations.

Coconut water served directly in the coconut.

Coconut water served directly in the coconut. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Although each prolific tree bears thousands of coconuts during its seven-decade lifetime, the plant does provide more than just fruit. In fact, it performs so many roles in Southeast Asia that people there refer to it as “the tree of life.”

In Vietnam, folks use the hollowed-out shells for bowls, husks for fuel, leaves for thatching and wood for timber. To this day, my stepfather-in-law’s sister, who lives in rural South Vietnam, cooks her meals on a stove fired by coconut husks. She cools off on hot days with water tapped from young, green coconuts.

From one coconut tree comes a variety of liquids. There is the aforementioned sweet, opaque juice from immature fruit. I’ve drunk this directly from the shell in Vietnam as well as in Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia. A common thirst quencher, coconut water is sold on the streets throughout Southeast Asia. Vendors simply hack off the top of the shell, insert a straw and serve.

Workers at a coconut-processing plant in the Mekong Delta.

Workers at a coconut-processing plant in the Mekong Delta. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Cooks also use coconut water to tenderize and braise meats. It’s especially important in the Indonesian fried chicken specialty Ayam Mbok Berek. Here hunks of chicken marinate and then boil in a mixture of coconut water, shallots and spices before being deep-fried. Soft, succulent and flavorful, this dish puts my usual fried chicken to shame.

A staple of Southern Indian and Southeast Asian cooking, coconut milk is the result of adding boiling water to grated coconut; pour in half the amount of water and you’ll end up with coconut cream. After cooling to room temperature, the whitish liquid is squeezed and strained from the fruit. Both coconut milk and cream feature in curries, soups, sauces, preserves, cakes, puddings, rice dishes and drinks.

When tapped for its fast fermenting sap, a coconut palm tree generates the alcohol known as toddy. If you distill this sap, you’ll create the potent spirit arrack. Reminiscent of rum and whisky, it’s widely produced in Sri Lanka.

A coconut doesn’t just yield liquids. Its white meat serves a variety of culinary roles. When unripe, the jelly-like flesh can be consumed like pudding, straight from the shell with a spoon.

Coconut meat used in both sweet and savory treats

Ripe, firm coconut meat can be shredded and made into candies, desserts, stir-fries, curries and condiments. In Vietnam, coconut is grated together with tapioca for an unusual take on rice paper. Shaped into thin rounds and then steamed, coconut-tapioca paper is then either dried and used for spring rolls or toasted and topped with vegetables or meats.

As a result of a recent trip to Singapore, my current favorite way to consume coconut is as jam. Coconut jam, or kaya, plays a prominent role in this city-state’s cuisine. Drop by any Singapore coffeehouse at breakfast time and you’ll encounter plates of toast slathered in the sweet, amber-hued kaya.

Along with acting as a toast topping, kaya serves as an ambrosial filling for steamed Singapore buns. While I do put homemade coconut jam on toast and in buns, I also place it in crêpes, on ice cream and over Greek yogurt.

Unfortunately, although high in protein, coconut is likewise high in saturated fat. Enjoy it in moderation and in countless ways.

Coconut Jam

A variation on the traditional Singapore preserves known as kaya, this jam will keep for up to one week in the refrigerator. For the best results, use fresh eggs and fresh, not canned, coconut milk. 

Makes 2 cups


¾ cup plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon water

5 large eggs

1 cup coconut milk

3 tablespoons unsweetened coconut, minced


1. Place 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon water in a small saucepan, stir to combine and bring a boil over medium high heat. Stirring frequently, cook until the ingredients thicken and turn caramel in color, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

2. In a medium bowl whisk together the remaining sugar and eggs.  Add the coconut milk and whisk until well combined.

3. Using a mesh strainer, strain the liquid into a double boiler. Stirring constantly, cook the mixture over medium heat until it becomes custard-like in consistency and golden in color, about 40 to 45 minutes. Add the caramelized sugar and minced coconut and, still stirring, cook for 10 to 15 minutes. When done, the jam will be thick, chunky and caramel colored.

4. Spoon the jam into a bowl and cool completely.

5. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Top photo: Workers at a Mekong Delta coconut-processing plant. Woman in the foreground shells the fruit, which will be sent to markets down river in Vietnam. Credit: Kathy Hunt

Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt is a food writer, cooking instructor and author of the seafood cookbook "Fish Market." Her writings on food and travel have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. Currently she is writing the nonfiction book "Herring: A Global History" for Reaktion Books. Kathy can also be found at and on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. 

  • michlhw 7·23·12

    ummm.. several clarifications necessary for this article:

    1) coconut originates from Malaysia: please read and many other articles documenting the origins of the coconut and its subsequent spread.

    2) coconut cream is NOT made from hot water– hot water will separate the coconut oil from the milk. cool/room temperature water is used.

    3) coconut cream is NOT usually made by simply using half the water required. it is obtained by skimming of the “head” of the coconut milk mixture.

    4) coconut have many more uses than the more obvious ones described above, such as husks for rope-making, matting to support grass growth, orchid growth, etc. to simply list the basics would be to down-play the importance of the coconut.

  • Carol Selva Rajah 7·24·12

    hi Kathy,

    An important point to make is that the young green coconuts produce the sweet salty juice and jelly like flesh , but the mature ripened coconut has the firm flesh that can be grated or chopped then blended into a coconut milk and cream.

    I have often used warm water 2 cups to work the flesh then squeeze the milk, not hot water. The first pressing is thicker and the second pressing much lighter .they shouod be kept separate . with the thick pressing , Cream rises to the top( as in milk) and can be skimmed to use at the end of a cooking cycle. The thinner milk is used for cooking not for finishing a sauce .

    Coconut milk is used, not to lessen the heat but to add rich creamy and hauntingly flavoursome taste to the curries. its addictive, unfortunately it is rich in saturated fats.

    but a recent study of coconut oil has led to the belief that it may be good to prevent memory loss and age-related dementia.

    The oil has been used for centuries as a hair oil in India and some other parts of the south east Asia . The value added properties you have spoken about can be found throughout all of South East Asia and South India, the coconut husk made into coir ropes is a large industry in the Philippines as well and coconut ladles, small utensils are made of wood and coconut shell are available in all of south East Asia. .

    as a matter of interest , the salty sweet green coconut liquid has been at times used as a substitute for saline solution when pure saline is unavailable, when the top of the coconut is shaved off thinly and a needle inserted to supply a patient who needs it , in rural areas. The liquid in the shell is unadulterated if the shell has not been opened.

    Growing up in Malaysia, i remember , we used coconut husks and wood ash to clean our sooty pots until they shone, huts were thatched with coconut palm leaves and brooms made from the tines of the leaves then tied together with cane binding to form strong brooms.

    Floor matting, bags and hats are still made of coconut leaves;organic material that made us self sufficient. it was truly the fruit we all depended on. The coconut nucifera palm has many varieties, but the dwarf coconut palm was our favourite as the fruits could be reached easily,

  • Mel 7·25·12

    Correction–“sweet, opaque juice from immature fruit”. The juice from a young coconut (with green husk), is not opaque but almost clear or just a bit cloudy. It is also known as coconut water.