Real Food Encyclopedia | Coconuts

Dreaming of warm sunshine and aquamarine waters? There are few images more evocative of the tropics than swaying palm trees lining an expanse of white sand — but the hypnotic beauty of the coconut palm is just one of its many attributes. From coconut water to coconut oil, from the coconut fiber that lines your window box planters to the coconut milk in your curry, the coconut palm, aptly called “The Tree of Life” for its usefulness, is a truly remarkable plant.

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Fun Facts about Coconuts:

  • Per Alan Davidson in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” Marco Polo came across coconuts in Java, Indonesia in the 13th century.
  • Also according to Davidson, 15th century Portuguese traders began using the word coco to describe to the coconut, referring to a skull or a head — because the three eyes of the nut were said to resemble a monkey’s face.
  • Coconut crabs are giant, creepy crabs that feed primarily on coconuts but also maybe on Amelia Earhart and kittens. They are considered an invasive pest in Hawaii.
  • According to the Library of Congress, during World War II and the Vietnam War, naturally sterile coconut water was used in place of IV fluid, which was often in short supply.

What to Look for When Buying Coconuts

The coconut palm is incredibly important as a foodstuff across the globe. Technically “dry drupes,” not true fruits, coconuts have a smooth outer shell (the exocarp), which is typically green or yellow, a fibrous husk (the mesocarp) and a hairy, brown shell (the endocarp) that surrounds the meat of the coconut as well as the coconut water contained inside. (Here’s a picture.) In the United States, we commonly see only the brown, round endocarp sold in grocery stores, although tropical markets may sell the entire coconut.

The most common coconut products (aside from fresh coconuts) are:

  • Dried coconut meat (copra) and desiccated coconut: Copra comes from the dried white coconut meat. It’s high in oil and low in water content. Desiccated coconut is also made from coconut meat. It is dried and sieved into different grades of fineness. Desiccated coconut comes in sweetened and unsweetened versions, so be sure to consult your recipe before you purchase it.
  • Coconut oil: Coconut oil comes in a couple of different varieties. Virgin (or extra virgin) coconut oil can be extracted from fresh coconuts, called “wet milling,” or expeller pressed from dried coconut meat. Most commercial coconut oil, which is frequently referred to as RBD (refined, bleached, deodorized) coconut oil, is made from copra, the dried meat of the coconut. Virgin coconut oil is solid at room temperature and white in color. Depending on how it is processed, it can have a mild to strong coconut flavor. Refined coconut oil is odorless and has a much higher smoke point than virgin oil. Here is a nice guide to selecting a good coconut oil.
  • Coconut milk/cream: Coconut milk and cream are thick, sweet-ish liquids, typically made from shredded coconut meat. They are produced by pouring hot or boiling water over coconut meat, then squeezing the liquid out. (More water produces coconut milk, less water coconut cream.) You can easily make your own.
  • Coconut sugar: Also called “palm sugar,” coconut sugar is made from the sap collected from the coconut palm tree flower bud.
  • Coconut flour: Coconut flour is made by grinding dried, defatted coconut meat. It’s becoming more common as an alternative flour as the gluten-free movement catches fire.
  • Coconut water: Coconut water is the naturally sweet, clear-ish liquid harvested from the inside of young, green coconuts. It can be found either shelf-stable or fresh in the refrigerated section of your grocery store.

Sustainability of Coconuts

Coconut cultivation, while not as damaging as palm oil production, does have some environmental tolls. Maddie Oatman, writing in Mother Jonespointed out that coconut farmers are often paid very little and exposed to dangerous pesticides. (Coconuts can also be quite dangerous to harvest.) A Stanford study done in 2010 found that coconut palms decrease soil nutrients, which may alter the feeding habits of animals and birds. Look for organic, fair trade coconut products to ameliorate some of these problems. Of course, if you are committed to local agriculture, consuming coconut products that typically come from the other side of the globe may not be the most sustainable option.

Coconut Seasonality

Like most tropical products, fresh coconuts are available year-round.

Coconuts and Geography

Coconuts are grown on farms across the tropics; Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Brazil and Sri Lanka are the top global producers.

Coconuts are the product of the Cocos nucifera tree. Trees can be as large as 30 meters (about 100 feet) in height, but dwarf cultivars may be significantly shorter. There are over 80 varieties of the coconut palm, with different cultivars grown for different products — including coconut oil, coconut meat (copra), coconut water and coconut coir (fiber).

The coconut palm is probably native to Southeast Asia, although there is some minor speculation that the tree may have tropical American origins. Recent genetic research, however, has unveiled two distinct areas of the origin of the tree’s cultivation — one in the Pacific basin and one in the Indian Ocean basin. Pacific cultivars were probably first grown in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, while Indian Ocean cultivars had their likely origins in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

As science writer Diana Lutz points out, the cultivation origins of the coconut palm points to prehistoric trade routes and colonization. Ancient Austronesians likely brought coconuts with them on their trade routes to Indian Ocean sites that connected Southeast Asia to Madagascar and East Asia. In later times, Portuguese traders carried coconuts to West Africa, and finally to the Caribbean and South America. The first mainland US coconuts were grown in Florida in the 19th century.

Eating Coconuts

Storing Coconuts

Fresh coconuts can be stored on the counter for several days. Once cracked, store in a container in the refrigerator. Store dried or desiccated coconut in a cool, dry place, or in the fridge. Coconut oil should be stored in a cool, dark place to avoid rancidity.

Cooking with Coconuts

Ever wondered about the easiest way to get the meat out of a coconut? Try freezing it first — then all you need is a hammer! Here’s a video on how to do it.

Coconut is an important component of many cultures’ cuisines — from Southeast and South Asian to Pacific Island, to Caribbean and South American. It is equally delicious in sweet as in savory dishes. Coconut milk is used in Thai, Malaysian and Caribbean curries and in candies and stews in Brazil. You can even find coconut milk yogurt (or make your own) and coconut milk ice cream.

Coconut meat is used in Indian desserts and chutneys and in myriad other ways in tropical cuisines around the world. Coconut oil can be used as a substitute for any oil in baking and frying and is frequently used in vegan desserts as a substitute for butter because it has a similar richness. As you might guess, coconut pairs deliciously with its tropical brethren. On the sweet side, think bananas, chocolate, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, papaya and mango. On the savory — try pairing coconut with cilantro, seafood (especially shellfish and flaky white fish) and chiles. Coconut water is delicious on its own, but you can also try blending it into smoothies in place of juice or plain water.

Coconut Nutrition

Virgin coconut oil has, of late, become the darling of the natural food world, purported to help with weight lossoral health and even Alzheimer’s disease. It is 92 percent saturated fat, so go easy! Coconut meat is high in fiber and manganese (and saturated fat), and contains a good amount of iron, copper, folate, magnesium, zinc and selenium. Coconut water is marketed as a natural sports drink because it is high in potassium and other electrolytes.