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.
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.
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.
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