How to Eat a Coconut a Day in Thailand
By Michael Babcock
There are many good reasons to eat a coconut a day in Thailand (see Coconut: A Good Oil.) The quick version is that coconut contains a substance (lauric acid), which in the body is anti-microbial – it protects against bacteria and viruses that cause illness such as "turista." In Indonesia, young coconut juice is often given when someone has diahhrea. Coconut juice is cooling and is full of electrolytes – think of it as the original sports drink – a perfect beverage in a hot climate.
On my trips to Thailand I make sure I get some coconut every day. Here are the ways I got my "coconut a day." At this time (October 2008), there are roughly 34 baht to a dollar, so 10 baht is about 30 cents, American.
- Young coconut (maprao awn). Young coconut is found in most open-air markets is also fairly widely available from street vendors. Easily recognizable as a cylinder topped by a point (see drawing to right), cost is usually 10 baht, occasionally 15, sometimes as high as 20. Even some restaurants carry them, usually still very reasonable. Make sure the vendor can chop it open and provide a straw and (hopefully) spoon for you (we carry our own spoons as vendors don't usually provide them). They are not always very young: sometimes the flesh is fairly thick and firm, which means more coconut oil. Two things to watch out for: in restaurants it is sometimes sweetened and if you purchase a plastic bottle of young coconut from a vendor it is almost certainly sweetened; If the top has already been cut off, it usually means that the contents have been replaced with a coconut/agar jelly that is sweetened.
- Roasted coconut (maprao pao). Also sold in markets and by vendors. These are usually smaller white coconuts with a black scorch mark from the fire somewhere on them. The juice can be wonderfully sweet as cooking concentrates the natural sugars, as well as loosens the flesh. The meat can easily be peeled off and eaten without the need for a spoon. The cost is about the same as young coconut.
- Coconut-rice grilled hotcakes (kanom krok). These are wonderful little pancake-like delights. Sold nearly exclusively as street food. Check out our recipe plus a picture of a woman making them (so you'll know what to look for). They are very tasty. Cost is usually 10 baht for 9 or 10 pairs. Quality can vary. They are made with sugar, although the best ones are not real sweet.
- Grilled coconut cakes (kanom paeng jee) and kanom bah bin. These are made with shredded coconut and, although tasty, are often a bit sweet for my taste. Cost will be about 10 baht for roughly several cakes. This is also a street food.
- Other snacks (kanom) with coconut. There are a wide variety of Thai snacks and many of them use coconut. It is usually fairly obvious by the white color of the snack. One example is a corn-coconut treat with toasted sesame The downside for these snacks is the presence of sugar. Found mostly on the street.
- Thai dishes with coconut. This is one of the easiest ways to get coconut milk. This would include such dishes as curries: green curry (gaeng kiow wan) mostly with chicken, pork, or fish), Muslim curry (gaeng mussaman, usually with chicken or beef), Panang curry (gaeng panang, usually with beef or chicken), and many varieties of red curry. Then there are soups such as coconut soup with chicken (dom ka gai) or coconut seafood soup (dom ka taleh). These dishes are widely available, both as street food and in most restaurants. As a plus, most of the dishes we encounter with coconut milk were made with fresh coconut milk.
- Coconut milk (gkati). Nearly every truly local market (not supermarkets) that we found (meaning it sells food to locals for use in the kitchen and does not cater to tourists) had a coconut press turning out fresh coconut milk. The first pressing of finely shredded meat is done with very little water to produce the cream, which is called hua gkati – literally, "head of the coconut milk." The later pressings, more watery, are called hang gkati – literally, "tail of the coconut milk."
If you wish to try this, be prepared to communicate with the vendor. The problem is that you don't know what kind of water they add to the extraction: since these are meant to be used in cooking they probably don't use bottled water. One extractor in the local market on Sukhumvit Soi 55 (it is hidden away inside to the left on Sukhumvit just past Soi 55, called Thong Lo, pronounced 'Tawng Law') can use boiled water on request. You must buy a minimum of one kilogram of shredded coconut, which they will then press for you – cost was 24 baht. They pressed it in front of us using a kilogram of coconut meat with about 1/2 cup of the boiled water, and it produced roughly half a liter (2 cups, American). It was so rich that both Kasma and I got upset stomachs: it was probably not the water because the upset followed immediately upon drinking and went away when our bellies got a little more filled. It was good and tasty, however. I wish we could get this here for cooking.
We also tried this in a market South of Chonburi. For 10 baht we got a small (1/4 liter or less) bag of cream (very rich) and a larger bag (perhaps 2/3 to 3/4 liter) of a second pressing. We drank the cream but passed on the other because of uncertainties about the water used to make it. You could always try to get the vendors to make it with bottled water that you give them.
- Toasted desiccated coconut. We saw this in a couple of markets and purchased it a few times. It's used in miang kum – Tasty Leaf-Wrapped Tidbits and some desserts. It's tossed with a very small amount sugar to help it roast up crispier and retain that crispness – it didn't taste too sweetened. It was 100 baht for a fairly large bag – I'd guess a 1-1/2 liters, something like that. VERY tasty.
- Coconut ice cream. Not all coconut ice creams are created equal. If it comes from Walls or Nestles, it has dairy in it. The very best, when found, is made exclusively from coconut milk and coconut cream and has a slightly icy texture. We found one at a favorite restaurant, My Choice, 5 Sukhumvit 36, Bangkok 10110. [Shameless plug – we have NEVER had a dish that wasn't terrific here – everything is good.] We also encounter a fair number of street ice cream vendors: some of the ice cream is made only from coconut, some isn't. Of course, all ice cream will have sugar.
- Other Thai desserts. There are a fair number of Thai desserts that could be classified as "stuff in coconut-based liquid." One of my favorites is ruam mitr – a good one contains a variety of goodies such as jackfruit, green noodles, palm kernels, corn, and 'pomegranate seeds' (actually water chestnuts in a red covering) in a very light coconut milk with crushed ice – fairly sweet, but yummy. Another is floating lotus sweet dumpling coconut milk soup kanom bua loi. In food centers (which are all over in Thailand) there inevitably will be a stand that has bowls of various colored foodstuffs and coconut sauce to put them in. You can go up and point to what you want.
Of course, there's Coconut-Flavored Sticky Rice and Mango (Kao Niow Ma-muang) – sticky rice in a coconut sauce. This is usually fairly sweet. Another dessert, found mostly as street food, is Coconut Egg Custard (Sangkaya) – often served in a squash.
- Canned coconut milk – placed at the end because you probably won't need to bother, though it could be used in a pinch. Found mainly at supermarkets (yes, they have them in Thailand and, just as in the U.S., the majority of the items sold are processed non-foods). Two of Kasma's favorite brands, Chaokoh and Mae Ploy are widely available. Avoid (like the plague) the stuff in cardboard boxes – it's irradiated.