Coconut with the biological name ‘cocos nucifera’ is the most accepted member of ‘Palm family’. The term coconut is used to refer to the entire coconut palm, including the fruit and its seed. In old fashion world, the spelling ‘cocoanut’ is used to identify the today’s coconut. Coconut has many culinary as well as non-culinary uses and almost all the parts of the fruit can be used in some or the other way. As a household cookery ingredient, coconut is used in making various sweet and savory dishes. Coconut biscuit, coconut laddoo, coconut fish and coconut cake are some of the popular coconut dishes that are well-liked in international cuisine.
Origin of Coconut
There is still a debate regarding the origin of coconut. According to some sources, its origin is to be believed from South Asia but other evidences show the origin in Northwestern South America. 15 million years ago, a small coconut-like plant grew in New Zealand that indicates the origin of coconut at that place. The fossils of coconut trees found in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka also makes the debate more confusing and the actual origin of coconut is still unknown.
Culinary Use of Coconut
Not only one part of coconut is used in cooking but it has varied uses in making tasty coconut dishes.
• Coconut oil – This is one of the most preferred oil in cooking. It is especially used to make margarine.
• Coconut flesh – The white flesh of coconut is the most important part in making coconut dishes. It is edible and sweet in taste. Coconut flesh can be either used in dried or powdered form or it can also be used as fresh coconut.
• Coconut water – The coconut fruit contains water that is suitable for drinking purposes. It is a very good source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Coconut water is taken as a refreshing drink during humid weather. Due to its nutrients it is widely used in sports drinks. A dessert called ‘nata de coco’ contains coconut water as one of the ingredients.
• Coconut milk – Coconut is grated and mixed with hot water or milk to produce coconut milk. It is used in making various sweet and savory coconut dishes such as coconut fish curry and coconut milk kheer.
• Coconut nectar – The nectar is extracted from the young coconut buds and mainly used as a drink called ‘neera’. This extract is fermented to produce ‘palm wine’. In Maldives, coconut nectar is used as a morning energy drink.
• Palm cabbage – Some of the adult coconut plants have apical buds that are edible and known as ‘palm cabbage’. It is a very rare ingredient and mainly used in making salads often known as ‘millionaire’s salad’.
Cuisines Commonly Making Coconut Dishes
Due to the huge production of coconut in India, USA and Middle East, the cuisines of these countries are famous for coconut dishes. In India coconut is popularly known as ‘Nariyal’. It is mainly used in South Indian dishes. Coconut chutney, nariyal macchi and coconut rice are some of the famous South Indian coconut dishes. Middle Eastern cuisine includes coconut cake (Harissah), coconut pilaf and many coconut desserts and pastries. Coconut butter, coconut muffins and coconut candies are some of the well-liked American dishes. Filipino and Vietnamese cuisine also contain various coconut dishes such as ‘puso’, a Filipino coconut dish made by wrapping rice in coconut leaves and cooking it. Candy, caramel and jelly are some of the famous Vietnamese food items made up of coconut.
Preferable Methods for Cooking Coconut
Coconut can be cooked in number of ways. Here is the list of cooking methods used for coconut:
• Boiling – Coconut milk is boiled with hot water or milk to form base for soups and curries.
• Scrapping – Scarped coconut is used as a garnish in many sweet and savory dishes such as coconut rice, coconut cake and puddings.
• Grinding – Coconut meat is grinded in a food processor to make paste for gravy and also for coconut chutney.
• Baking – Coconut flakes are mixed with other ingredients and baked to form cakes, muffins and biscuits.
• Poaching – Coconut water is used for poaching eggs and fish. It can also be added to soups and curries to give a tangy taste to the dish.
Nutritive Value of Coconut
Coconut is full of nutrients. Coconut milk, water, flesh and oil all are used as an ingredient in making coconut dishes and contain less fat but high minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Coconut flesh is a good source of dietary fibers that help in relieving constipation. Coconut milk provides nutrients that are helpful in curing sore throat and stomach ulcers. Researches have suggested that coconut water is very beneficial for skin and urinary problems. Coconut contains natural iodine that prevents Goiter. Though, it is not confirmed that saturated fat contents in coconut oil are unhealthy it is helpful in relieving stress, heart diseases and high cholesterol.
Buying and Storing of Coconut
Weather you are buying dry coconut or fresh coconut, few things should be kept in mind to ensure that you are buying the right fruit. Here are few points for a proper purchase:
• Always take coconut in your hand and listen to the noise of water inside. If the water is not present than it is the sign of overripe coconut.
• Coconut should be intact, without any breaks and leaking of moisture.
• A heavy weight coconut is always recommended.
• Fresh coconut meat can be stored in refrigerator for 2-3 months. Grated coconut can be frozen for up to 8 months.
• While buying dry coconut such as coconut chips or desiccated coconut, always check the expiry date on the package.
• Also check for the preservatives added as it may cause irritation on skin and mouth.
• Store dry coconut in a cool and dry place. It is advisable to use dry coconut before the expiry date.
Types of Coconut
Usually, there is only one species of coconut that is called ‘Cocos nucifera’. However, this single species contain various varieties of coconut. These varieties are divided into tow main categories: Tall and dwarf.
• Tall coconut palm – ‘Niu kafa’ and ‘niu vai’ are the two varieties of tall coconut palm. Niu kafa is a wild and commercial variety where as niu vai is a domesticated variety of coconut.
• Dwarf coconut palm – ‘Cameroon red’, ‘the Malayan Yellow’ and ‘Nias green’ are the main varieties of dwarf coconut palm. Most of them are suitable for domestic cultivation.
• A single coconut is broken everyday in a middle-class South Indian family for eating.
• 150 people are killed every year by falling coconuts; the figure is 10 times the number of people killed by the attack of shark.