Coconut – Maprao
by Kasma Loha-unchit
The coconut palm is one of the most useful of all trees in the tropics, providing not only food but raw materials for making all sorts of useful furnishings, household supplies and even recreational equipment. The fruit or nut is eaten at different stages of development; for most recipes on the Web site we are primarily interested in the flesh of the mature coconut, which is shredded and roasted to add a rich, nutty flavor to certain dishes and pressed to make coconut milk and cream for curries and soups.
In tropical Asia, coconuts are eaten in different stages of ripeness. When they are young and green, the clear juice inside some varieties is sweet and refreshing, sometimes naturally fragrant with a subtle hint of flowers. Not only is it a good thirst quencher, the juice is also good for reducing heat in the body. On hot days in the tropics when you feel sluggish and overheated, drink lots of young coconut juice.It will revive you and replenish your energies. In folk medicine, the fresh juice of young coconuts is also recommended for reducing fevers and relieving headaches, stomach upsets, diarrhea and dysentery, for strengthening the heart and for restoring energy to weakened bodies recovering from illness. It is believed that expectant mothers who regularly drink young coconut juice will help the fetus grow stronger and with greater vitality.
Not all young coconuts have juice that is sweet and fragrant. In some varieties the juice can be rather bland, sour and uninteresting. The mature fruits of these varieties are more delectable; as they ripen, the meat inside becomes thicker and richer, firmer and more pulpy. Its oil content increases, and it becomes a closer approximation of a nut. Most coconuts are grown for their mature fruits, which yield shredded coconut meat for making desserts and snacks; coconut milk for curries, soups and desserts; and coconut oil for cooking and for making soaps, candles, protective skin lotions and cosmetics. Copra, the dried meat of matured coconuts, is one of Thailand's major exports, providing an important source of food and raw material to other parts of Asia and the world.
For the handful of recipes that call for roasted shredded coconut, it is not essential to go through the laborious process of removing the flesh from a fresh whole coconut (Shredding a Coconut). Simply use the dried, unsweetened shredded coconut sold in well-stocked Asian markets, natural food stores or gourmet supermarkets. Make sure it has not been sweetened. Store extras in an airtight jar or plastic bag in a cool place in the pantry.
To roast, spread the shredded coconut in a dry pan over moderate heat. Stir frequently until the coconut turns a rich and even golden brown color and very fragrant. Remove from pan and set aside to cool before using. Roasted coconut shreds keep for a couple of months in a sealed jar in the pantry.
In the west, most people know coconuts primarily in the sweetened, shredded form they've had in such desserts as coconut cake or coconut macaroons, or as sweetened milk for making pina coladas. Neither is a fair representation of what fresh coconuts really are like and the many different ways they can be used in cooking. Whenever I've had new cooking students who insist that they do not like coconuts, they always seem surprised by how delicious Thai curries, coconut soups and desserts tasted. Almost invariably, their prior gastronomical experiences with coconuts have been limited to the highly processed and sweetened products.
Also of interest is a discussion on coconut cream and milk. Aside from the food value of the fruit, the coconut palm yields a sweet sap for making sugar, called palm sugar, and tender, edible shoots (unopened new leaves atop the palm, called "palm heart") which make a delectable crisp vegetable.
This Web site has a wealth of information on coconuts and coconut oil.