Coconuts are widely used in SE Asia and India for making sugar, alcohol, housing, utensils, temple offerings, charcoal, in cooking and infinite other uses. Bowls, ropes, fences, roofing, musical instruments come to mind.
The grated flesh of coconut, either fresh or dried, is added to food; the flesh is grated on special graters which are different depending on the country. It can be squeezed in water to make coconut cream and milk. The juice of young coconuts is drunk in hot weather, and is good for stomach upsets and other digestive needs.
In India, coconut sellers line the streets and seashores in the morning selling coconuts semi hulled to the early buyers. Likewise, in Bali, they are plentifully available in the markets that open about 4am.
When buying a coconut, look for one that shows no signs of mould and is free of cracks. David Thompson of Thai Food, says to look for one that is quite heavy for its size – this meant that there is more flesh in the coconut. Shake the coconut. If it contains a lot of water it has a better chance of being good and the flesh is less likely to be fermented.
Once broken, the inner flesh of the coconut should taste sweet, never rancid or mouldy.To grate fresh coconut, peel off the husk, and then the brown skin with a vegetable peeler or a knife, cut into pieces and throw them into a blender. Freeze what you do not use.
If fresh coconut is not available, frozen is generally available. Alternatively use dried coconut, or, in desperate times, unsweetened desiccated coconut, soaked with some warm water for 1 hour. Use 30g for each 60g of fresh coconut.
Cracking a Coconut
There are many reported methods to crack a coconut, from roasting it first, to this one from David Thompson: Hold the coconut in the palm of the hand, eyes towards the thumb or little finger, and with the back of a heavy cleaver, crack the coconut deftly down the centre with a hefty wallop. Lift the cleaver quickly so as to shatter the husk. Repeat, rotating the coconut. Two, three or four times should do it. Do it over a bowl to catch the liquid.
The coconut water, when fresh, is the most thirst quenching of liquids, however it sours quickly and is often used to ferment vegetables or to make vinegar.
Shredding the Meat
The coconut halves are washed and then grated. Traditionally, a small stool with a sharp pronged grater at one end – a “rabbit” – is used. However, a hand-cranked spindle grater or even a zester works well. For long strands, drag the utensil all the way across the coconut half. For shorter shreds, start from the centre of the coconut half and work your way to the rim. Turning the coconut regularly helps ensure even strands.
To roast coconut, roast freshly grated coconut in a very low oven, checking and turning often, until golden fragrant and nutty.
Coconut milk and cream are extractions make by seeping freshly grated coconut in boiling water or milk. It is used in South Indian and SE Asian desserts, curries and other recipes.
Don’t confuse coconut milk with tender coconut juice, the watery liquid found inside the coconut which is not rich enough for the cooking recipes.
Coconut milk and cream can be made at home. Good quality, canned coconut milk and cream are also available from Asian food stores and supermarkets. For use in cooking, it is best to use the unsweetened type unless it specifies otherwise. In some places, coconut powder is available, and it is mixed with water to obtain coconut milk or cream. This gives a lot of control over the strength and thickness of the coconut milk.
Because coconut cream and milk spoils quickly, it is wise to freeze any unused portion. Freeze any leftovers in small amounts for future use.
Sometimes coconut milk separates and the fat solidifies on the top – if this happens, just stir it well.
Dried coconut milk is available in packets and can be made the desired consistency and richness by following the directions on the packet; it also has a good storage life. If you can’t buy any coconut cream or milk, you can make it using desiccated coconut.
Making Coconut Milk
To make fresh coconut milk, put 2 cups of freshly grated ripe coconut into a bowl with 2 cups of hot water or milk. Squeeze and knead the coconut thoroughly for a minute or so (or mix into the blender), then strain through a cheesecloth into a bowl to obtain thick coconut milk.
Repeat the process to obtain thin coconut milk. They can be combined, and will also freeze easily.
Making Coconut Cream
To obtain cream, let the thick milk from the first extraction sit for a while and it will rise to the top. Coconut cream is quite thick, almost of a spreadable consistency. It is the product of the first extraction from the flesh. It is very rich and is usually added at the end of cooking to enrich curry or sauce or dessert.
Coconut milk from the second extraction is a thinner consistency than the cream as it is extracted from the flesh after the cream has already been produced. It is used in SE Asian curries and desserts.
Making Coconut Cream and Milk from Desiccated Coconut.
To make coconut milk and cream from desiccated coconut, place 2 cups unsweetened desiccated coconut in a pan with 2.5 cups water and bring to a simmer. Pour into a blender and process for a minute. Strain though a double thickness of cheesecloth or muslin, pushing out as much liquid as you can. It should make about 1.5 cups thick coconut milk. Repeat with the same amount of water and the leftover coconut and you should get 2 cups thin coconut milk.
In Bali, roasted coconut milk is made by roasting chunks of fresh coconut in a charcoal fire until blackened on all sides. The charred exterior is then brushed off, the flesh grated and coconut milk extracted in the normal way.
Young coconuts can be bought readily, normally frozen, from most Asian food suppliers. Sometimes the cleaned flesh with some of its water can be bought ready to go in a bag.
If the coconut is in its shell, pierce the husk twice with a steel skewer to drain the water, then cleave in half and remove the soft, gelatinous flesh with a spoon. Shave the brown inner skin from the flesh before using.
Keep the husk, which is used in various desserts. Sometimes, special “grating” coconuts are available, which are not quite mature so have tender flesh that is perfect for using fresh in desserts. (David Thompson, Thai Food)
Feel free to browse recipes from our Retro Recipes series. You might also like our Ingredients information here. Or you might like to browse our Indian Essentials series here. Check out our easy Coconut recipes here and here.