Known in Sanskrit-speaking parts of India as Kalpa Vriksha, or “the tree which provides all the necessities of life,” the coconut palm is an incredibly versatile tree, which can be used industrially as a domestic product, in cooking, and as a drink.
Depending on the species of tree, the coconut will either be green, orange, or brown. In Sri Lanka, for example, it’s difficult to find anything other than the indigenous orange “Thembili” variety, whereas in Southern India, just a short hop across the Laccadive Sea, the coconuts are green. Elsewhere, you’ll find the hairy brown type typically seen whenever a coconut features in any form of visual media, like a television advert or on the packaging of a product containing coconut.
Taken from the younger “drupes” (drupe being the formal name for a coconut, since it is classed as neither a fruit nor a nut), coconut water is low in all the things we are advised to avoid over-consuming, such as sugar and certain saturated fats.
Coconut water also contains the “endosperm” that will eventually become part of the flesh that forms its interior wall. It’s this component that holds the electrolytes which make the water so hydrating – a fact seized upon by entrepreneurial minds who’ve repackaged the water as a sports drink, usually sold in cartons. As the coconut matures, the endosperm deposits form a thicker and thicker wall of flesh inside the coconut, and from this, a number of other culinary products are produced.
Coconut oil and butter
There are many coconut oils on the market, but according to one website, their health benefits depend upon the ways in which they are made. Generally considered to be the healthiest variety available, extra virgin coconut oil is derived from cold-pressed dry or wet coconut flesh, rather than “copra” – another form of dried coconut flesh, which has to undergo a refining process before being fit for human consumption.
Coconut oil and butter (the term used to describe solidified coconut oil) can be used in much the same way as any other oils or butters: for frying, baking, and spreading. They’re particularly useful for frying because they don’t produce the harmful by-products other oils do when exposed to high temperatures. They are, however, high in saturated fat – but whether or not this is “good” or “bad” fat is the subject of much debate and research.
Coconut milk and cream
Like dairy cream, coconut cream is skimmed from cold coconut milk, which itself is obtained either by pressing grated flesh or by passing hot water or milk through it. The resulting liquid is then strained through a cheesecloth or similar material.
As anyone who’s familiar with Southeast Asia will know (or indeed, anyone who’s experimented with a can or carton of coconut milk bought from a shop), it can be used to great effect in dishes such as Thai green curry and Massaman curry, as well as in soups, such as Tom Kha Kai. Of course, using coconut cream, as opposed to milk, will result in a thicker sauce.
Coconut meat / desiccated coconut
When a coconut is young, the flesh inside has a jelly-like consistency, but as the coconut matures, the flesh thickens, making it perfect for scooping out and drying. Again, the dried flesh – which often comes in the form of desiccated coconut – can be used in curries and stews, but it’s not uncommon to find it in confectionary and desserts, including macaroons, pineapple crumble, and chocolate bars.
In recent years, coconut flour has become a popular substitute for wheat flour, particularly amongst people who suffer with gluten intolerance. Being low in carbohydrates and high in fibre, it can also add nutrients to an otherwise “sinful” cake!
Coconut sugar – aka palm sugar
In some parts of the world, the sap of the coconut tree is boiled and reduced, to create a sweet syrup – known in the Maldives (where the coconut is venerated to the extent that it has been declared the national symbol), as “addu bondi.” More commonly, however, the sap is reduced for a longer duration in order to produce sugar – also known as palm sugar or, in India, jaggery. It’s more akin to brown sugar than white, with a taste not dissimilar to caramel, and can be used in much the same ways as cane sugar.