Food ingredient

Thai Coconut Shortage, Part 1

Coconut Shortage Leads to Higher Prices and Compromised Quality (Part 1)

The price of canned coconut milk has doubled and tripled in the past couple of years, while the quality has changed and not for the better. Though prices have somewhat stabilized and may have even scaled back a little the last few months, it is unlikely that they will return to the same levels as before the spike – at least not in the short term.

Coconut Palm
Coconut palm trees

If you’ve noticed how your favorite brands of coconut milk, including the brands we used to recommend – particularly Chaokoh, seem to be different and not work as they used to in your Thai cooking, you’re right and it’s not your imagination. Many of our cooking students are concerned that they can no longer see coconut oil separating from the cream when they are heating it to make curries. And when making sauces and soups, they’ve noticed that the coconut milk unusually thickens rather than melting down to a smooth, lighter fluid.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Picking Coconut
Monkey picking a coconut

These things are happening because the large canned coconut milk producers have changed the way they make their products. The reason they had to do this is because of the acute coconut shortage – not from the skyrocketing production of canned and bottled young coconut beverages for the foreign market as some of our students have thought, nor from the devastating floods late last year, though this might have contributed to logistics costs. The culprit is a serous pest problem, aggravated by years of drought, that has destroyed hundreds of thousands of coconut palms in Thailand’s major coconut-growing provinces in the south. Notable are a number of non-native beetles, likely brought into the country with the ornamental plants imported from South Africa and Indonesia for the gardens of burgeoning tourist resorts.

In Koh Samui where coconuts count as heavily in the island’s economy as tourism, the rhinoceros beetles, which are up to two centimeters long, and the even larger coconut leaf beetles lay their eggs in the unopened flowers of coconut palms and feed on the young leaves of the trees. Their voracious appetite kills the trees and the insects move on to their next victim. This severe infestation has destroyed over 125,000 trees on the island and cut annual yield by 20 percent in 2010 and 2011.

Coconuts for grating

Of even greater concern is the tiny insect commonly known as the coconut hispine beetle (Brontispa longissima). Its minuscule size belies its ability in numbers to put the wheels of an entire industry to a screeching halt. Appearing in the midst of a two-year drought, this beetle has managed to decimate 35 percent of the coconut plantations in the southern peninsular province of Prachup Khiri Khan– by far the country’s largest coconut producer and famously known as the “coconut basket” of Thailand.

This destructive pest is native to Indonesia and according to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (the FAO), it has spread throughout the Southeast Asia-Pacific region through ornamental palm shipments. (One of my students heard that a similar beetle is starting to appear in coconut groves in the Caribbean and may become a cause of concern there in the near future.) More than 20 species of palm are vulnerable to attacks by the hispine beetle with the coconut palm identified by the FAO as its “most favored host.” The insect feeds on seedlings and the young leaves of mature coconut trees and can quickly kill an adult tree in no time.

Grating Coconuts At Home
Coconut grater for home use
Grating Coconuts Commercially
Commercial coconut grater

The grave beetle infestation shrunk supply and tripled the domestic price of coconut from the 6 to 7 baht each in mid -2010 to over 20 baht in late January 2011. At the height of the disaster early last year, Thailand’s leading producer of coconut milk under the Chaokoh label was forced to import some 200,000 coconuts a day – ironically from Indonesia – but the volume the company was able to produce still fell far short of demand. Over 500,000 coconuts are needed each day to produce Chaokoh coconut milk.

Making Coconut Milk
Machine for making coconut milk

Although it has become expensive, domestic demand for coconut remains strong since it is a key, indispensable ingredient in many Thai desserts, curries and soups. Thais cannot do without their coconut milk, even if this means an increase in their cost of living. When fresh coconut milk is hard to find, customers turn to pre-packaged products and this has driven Chaokoh sales even more. According to a company spokesperson, “Despite the import volume being so large [i.e, import volume of whole coconuts], we can supply only 100 tons of coconut milk per day to the market, far less than the demand of 150 tons.”

Coconut Milk
Coconut milk desserts

A research team from Kasetsart University (Thailand’s premier agricultural university – much like UC Davis) is at the forefront in the fight against the much dreaded hispine beetle. Fortunately for those of us who prefer our coconut milk as natural as possible, the pests are being battled with biological means rather than toxic chemical insecticides. Three different biological agents have been tested and proven effective. One is a fungus whose spores germinate and grow inside the beetle, killing it within days. The fungus then emerges from the carcass and spreads to other hispine beetles. A second biological weapon is a predatory “stink” bug and the third is a parasitic insect that attacks the beetle at the larval stage. These natural tools are gradually eliminating the pest – good news for coconut growers.

On Koh Samui, the Department of Agriculture is successfully using a parasitic insect to control the destructive beetles on the island. Local authorities are working hard to make the island a center of coconut production again. They have teamed up with tourism authorities to start a scheme whereby the 1.1 million annual visitors are asked to sponsor the planting of coconut seedlings: for 300 baht each their names will be put by the trees they sponsor. The goal is to plant a million new palms and as of June last year, a quarter of a million have been planted, Most have foreign names by their side as 85 percent of tourists to the island are from overseas.

Coconut Sprout
Sprouted Coconut

Coconut palms are recovering. Seriously injured and dead trees, plus old trees susceptible to diseases and pests, are being cleared from the plantations. Farmers are planting new drought- and pest-resistant hybrids to replace them. The catch is: it will take five to eight years for the new plants to mature and start bearing fruit. The coconut shortage will not be alleviated any time soon.

The supply and demand situation means the price of canned coconut milk for those of us who cook Thai food in the Bay Area will likely remain high for several more years. In an attempt to increase coconut milk production with limited supplies of coconuts, some companies, including the producer of Chaokoh coconut milk, have modified how they make coconut milk. The resulting products have noticeably changed and do not work quite the same way in American kitchens. We will cover how the products have changed and what brands we now recommend in Part 2 of our blog.

Coconut Articles on Thai Food & Travel

Ingredient Information and Use

Preparing and Using Coconuts

Coconuts in Thailand

Coconuts & Health

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, November 2013

Food ingredient

Selecting & Using Coconuts

How to buy a coconut at the store? Most Americans know coconuts primarily as the highly processed, sweetened products they’ve had sprinkled over coconut cakes or in mixes for piña coladas. Neither is a fair representation of what fresh coconuts really are like with their rich and nutty taste and mild, naturally sweet flavor.

Brown Coconut
Brown coconut in U.S.
Though supermarkets routinely carry coconuts, most people do not have the slightest clue of how to select one, much less what to do with it once they have brought one home. They try to poke holes in the eyes to drain out the liquid, then take a hammer to it to crack it open, sometimes accidentally jabbing or banging their own hands.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

After taking the trouble to get inside the hard shell, nothing is more discouraging than to find that the flesh has turned rancid. Such an experience is sure to deter a novice from ever bringing another one home, resigning herself to the packaged stuff on the shelf.

Coconut Eyes
These eyes don't look fresh
But wait! You should give it another try. Here are a few tips to get you started again, keeping in mind that the rich, nutty flavor of a good, fresh coconut is hard to beat.

Unlike nuts such as almonds, coconuts are more delicate than most people realize and do not have an indefinite shelf life, especially after the outer husks have been removed. Without the protection of the spongy husks, the shells bang against each other in transport and often crack and develop leaks. The eyes on one end are also exposed and subject to puncture and air seepage, or mold growing inward. Air and mold entering the coconut make the rich flesh spoil quickly. That is why when purchasing a coconut, take care to choose one still heavy with juice.

White Coconut
White, cooked coconut
Shake it, and if it seems dry, chances are there is a crack or leak in the shell, or it may have sat on the shelf too long, the juice having all but evaporated through the thin membranes of the eyes. Check the eyes, they shouldn’t look dark or moldy. Though often sealed with wax to prevent leakage, this does not guarantee that it has not occurred.

When looking for a coconut to buy, search first for a batch with an overall appearance suggesting freshness. If there are several that are moldy or cracked, try another store. From a fresh-looking batch, choose the best-looking one, and if you wish to be doubly sure, take home an extra as a back-up.

If you are not going to use the coconut right away, store in a cool dry place with good ventilation, or unwrapped in the refrigerator so that the shell does not become damp from condensation.

Two Coconut Halves
Halves, ready to be heated
Because the eyes are small and the surrounding shell thick and hard, draining the juice by poking holes in the eyes, as suggested in some cookbooks, may not be as easy as it sounds. The slow trickle may soon tax your patience.

A quick and easy way to crack and drain all at the same time is to use a cleaver. Holding it with one hand such that the “midriff” rests in the middle of your palm, with the tip on one end and the eyes on the other, whack the coconut hard with the dull side of a cleaver a few times until it cracks just enough to drain the juice, but not enough to split open. Do this over a bowl in the sink if you wish to save the juice. If the juice tastes fresh, then the flesh is still good. (Check out Kasma’s video on How to Crack a Coconut.)

Coconut Meat
Coconut meat, after heating
After draining, stick the whole coconut into a hot oven (400-450°) for about 20 minutes. Then cool sufficiently to handle before cracking it open into smaller sections. The heat of the oven would have loosened the meat from the shell, making it easier to pry out with a small knife, spoon or clean screwdriver. Cracking and draining the coconut before placing in a hot oven will prevent it from exploding, an experience you most certainly want to avoid!

Peel off some of the brown skin if you wish. Cut into smaller chunks and shred or chop in the food processor to the fineness desired for making your Thai desserts. To try out your coconut skills, try Kasma’s Grilled Coconut Cakes (Kanom Paeng Jee).

Kasma’s recipe page lists many Thai desserts using coconut or coconut milk.

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Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, March, 2011