By Beth Green
If there’s a food that world travelers could take on as a mascot, it’s the coconut.
|Shade. Photo by Beth Green|
The origin of the coconut is unclear, though most sources I’ve seen point to the tree developing somewhere in the reaches of the Pacific Ocean—South America, Indonesia, or somewhere in between. Because the versatile plant can grow in sandy soil as long as it has direct sun and warm temperatures year round, it quickly spread along trade routes, masking its true source. Ancient traders probably carried coconuts with them in their canoes as they traveled between Pacific archipelagos. They could drink the water of the coconut, scrape the insides to eat the white, translucent flesh, then use the split shell as a dish or other tool. The fibrous husk was woven into ropes and cloths. But even without human help coconuts are ready travelers; blown from their trees to the water in a storm, coconuts can float for leagues and germinate on whatever tropical shore they land.
The uses of the coconut fruit, tree and leaves are nearly limitless—and the societies of South East Asia have relied on this miracle food for millennia. Anyone familiar with Thai curries is probably aware that their creamy texture comes from coconut cream, which is the liquid derived from mashing coconut meat. (Coconut cream is also a main ingredient of one of my favorite sundowner cocktails and the official beverage of far-away Puerto Rico—the Piña Colada.) Coconut cream is a very important source of dietary fat for Asia.
In the West we’re told, in an effort to be healthy, to avoid fats whenever possible but some fat is important for our bodies to work properly. In the far north, native cultures relied on seal fat, in middle China and middle Europe, pig fat, in Japan, fish oil, and in South Asia and Polynesia, coconut oil. The availability of sources of protein and fat in the diet shaped and changed the regional cuisines into what they are today.
|Mature coconuts drying in Bohol, Philippines.|
If it isn’t harvested from young coconuts, the dried white meat of coconuts is delicious too. In the West we use it as a snack, grated into a pretty garnish for chocolatey cakes, or perhaps with sugar as a filling for candy bars like Bounty. In Asia, you may be more likely to find coconut bits in a soup, or candied, or even used as part of an offering in a temple or shrine.
But it’s coconut water that made the coconut the ideal travelers’ companion hundreds of years ago and which still makes it a refreshing pick-me-up after a day of sight-seeing in the tropics. Unlike rivers, lakes, or rainwater catchment, the water found inside young coconuts is pure, hydrating, and cooling, and can be drunk immediately after opening the shell. Travelers today drinking coconut water out of the green husk of the fruit can know they’re experiencing exactly what travelers thousands of years ago would have tasted, and out of the same,natural, cup.