How to Shred a Coconut
by Kasma Loha-unchit
After the coconut is cracked in two round halves, the white flesh can be scraped out in long thin shreds using a small implement with a row of sharp teeth, available from Southeast Asian markets. (My little niece and nephew, Toey and Baitoey, find this activity to be great fun. Whenever they come to visit and want to help in the kitchen, I keep them out of trouble by asking them to shred coconut. That usually is worth half an hour of silence and undivided attention. Later, when I incorporate the fruit of their effort into a simple appetizer or dessert, they feel so proud to have contributed; they have learned that cooking is fun and a way to give of themselves to their loved ones.)
Alternatively, you can first remove coconut meat from the shell and then grate or shred it in the food processor. (See Preparing a Coconut For Pressing Milk for tips on how to de-shell coconut meat.)
In Thailand, there are shredders that are attached to wooden stools, so that you can shred coconut while sitting down. If you have one, sit on the stool with the flat round shredder head sticking out in front of you and between your legs. Simply hold the coconut half with the white meat on the sharp-toothed head and move your hands swiftly up and down, scraping it out in fine shreds. With practice, you may find that a whole coconut shreds up in no time at all. You may also develop strong wrists from the exercise!
In olden days, the wooden stools were carved into elaborate animal shapes (such graters are called gkra-dtai, meaning "rabbit"). The National Museum in the southern city of Nakon Si Thammarat and the extensive Institute of Southern Thailand Studies in Songkla display interesting collections of antique coconut shredders among their folk exhibits. Some are people-shaped, with the shredder sticking out of the mouth, or more comically, out of the rear end. These artfully carved stools make fascinating decorative pieces and have become collector's items. Look for them in Bangkok's enormous Chatuchak Weekend Market – a bustling bazaar where almost everything imaginable is available – or in antique shops.
Aside from hand scrapers and stool graters, there are a number of mechanical contraptions for grating coconut. Many of these can reduce the pulpy meat of old coconuts into very fine, snow-like flakes, perfect for extracting coconut milk and for making chewy sweetmeats. Along with the wooden, boxlike machine mentioned earlier, another common device used by vendors in marketplaces consists of a large round aluminum basin with a torch-like shredder head sticking out through a hole in the center. With the basin tilted on its side, the shredder head is hooked on the back to a machine which powers it to turn like an osterizer. The sides of the basin catch the grated coconut so it doesn't fly all over the place.
Long, thin coconut shreds are sprinkled over various snacks and desserts, used as an ingredient in the fillings of crispy crepes and dumplings, and rolled into sweetmeats. For my niece and nephew, I sometimes toss toasted sesame seeds, some sugar and a little bit of salt with the coconut shreds they have helped scrape out of the shells and serve the mixture to them for a snack or light dessert. Cooked sweet corn kernels added to such a mixture also make a very nutritious snack food.
Along the streets of Thai cities and in snack shops, a tasty coconut cake called Kanom Paeng Jee is a popular treat. Made primarily of finely grated fresh coconut with rice flour, sugar and flavorings, it is shaped into little flat round pancakes and grilled. Some street vendors fill the sweet coconut mixture in tiny metal rings atop a hot griddle to make uniform little round bites – reminiscent of chewy coconut macaroons.
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