Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Well-Traveled Coconut

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
Round and buoyant, the fruit of the coco palm has crossed vast oceans and provided food, drink and even shelter to millions of wanderers.

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.
Green curry in Bangkok.

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.
In Cambodia a few years ago I took a half-day cooking class at the Smokin’ Pot in Battambang. The highlight of the class—other than the final meal, of course—was walking to the local market and watching the coconut seller grate up a huge bag of coconut meat for our class to use. Because of the high fat content of the cream, we didn’t have to add any other oil to our dishes.

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.
Photo by Dan Pelka.
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.


  1. Interesting piece, Beth. My only question is how did those early travelers ever open a coconut to eat in in the first place? Here in Rome, vendors sell chunks of coconut as street food. The chunks are suspended on a little fountain that trickles water to keep the coconut cool and to prevent them from drying out. They are sold from carts that offer other snacks and drinks.

  2. Well, one way that I've tried myself when I didn't have a machete is to find a nice sharp rock and throw the coconut against it until it smashes. Takes some coordination (and is great exercise!) but eventually it works! I think knives made of bone, shell or volcanic glass would also have been used. Are there coconut palms on the shores of the Med? I don't remember--seems like it would be too far north.

    1. Coconuts don't grow here unless someone in Sicily has them. We do have palm trees, but not coconut palms.

  3. Refreshing! Love coconut juice. Thailand has plenty.

  4. Ooh, the milk/juice from "tender coconut" is a popular stall type beverage in India that I always enjoy. For one thing, as a tourist, I don't have to worry about contamination or boiling, etc, like I would even with water. Secondly,'s heavenly. I'm curious about about your cooking class in Cambodia though. If you use fresh coconut meat, you don't need any cooking oil?

  5. Thanks Bhavna! Thailand has delicious coconut juice!

    Supriya, that's right, you can use coconut cream as the cooking oil if you want to have a Thai-curry like dish. Here's a link to the blog I did on that cooking class:

  6. Lovely post, Beth. I'm a big fan of coconut in all its forms, including those yummy cocktails...