In the UK we most often encounter coconut at the fairground, but it is a staple ingredient of many Asian cuisines and is a ubiquitous component of the cuisine of Sri Lanka.
Coconut tree with ripening fruits
Split coconut fruit
The coconut tree is native to the Malaysian peninsular of South-East Asia and is now cultivated in tropical regions all round the world. There has been speculation about a Polynesian or American origin of coconut, but this is almost certainly wrong. The plant was probably first cultivated in India or South-East Asia, emigrants from these countries bringing the coconut tree to almost everywhere in the tropics of Asia and Oceania. There is no evidence of coconut having grown in America before the arrival of the Spanish, despite the fact that the closest relatives of the coconut palm are of American distribution.
Seed tissue (endosperm), used fresh or dried. The sour liquid inside the young seed, referred to as "coconut water", is a common refresher in tropical countries and should not be confused with coconut milk. Coconut water is rarely used for cooking.
Arecaceae (palm family).
The endosperm has a pleasant, mild and nutty fragrance and a unique taste, with a hint of sweetness.
Coconut and its relatives in other European languages is derived from Spanish coco, from Portuguese côco, "bogeyman", "spectre" or "goblin", with reference to the three marks on each coconut that make it look like an eerie face.
The species name nucifera is a neo-Latin formation meaning "bearing nuts" (nux "nut" and ferre "carry" or "bear"). Almost all names of coconut in Indic languages are related, e.g. Hindi nariyal, Urdu nariyel, Punjabi narial, Bengali narokel and Farsi nargil. These and other names can be traced back to Sanskrit narikela, whose origin is not Indo-European. The first element resembles several Australasian names, e.g. Tagalog niyog, Malaysian nyiur and Hawaiian niu. In Tamil, the related word ney has the meaning "semi-solid fat", paralleling similar constructions for other oilseeds. The Armenian name Hentgagan engouz literally means "Indian nut" and some languages use similar designations for nutmeg, although neither plant originates from India.
The coconut palm is characteristic of tropical coasts, can be found world-wide and its role in the cuisines of tropical peoples cannot be overestimated. Furthermore, coconut products have been well-established in the production of sweets where their importance is not restricted to low latitudes.
Cooks in tropical Asia make multiple uses of coconut products. Coconut water is drunk directly from the unripe fruit, the grated and dried endosperm (khopra) is used to thicken sauces and the oil pressed from the endosperm is a popular frying medium. From the sweet juice obtained by cutting young stems, palm sugar is obtained (gula merah in Indonesia and jaggery in India).
Alternatively, the sap can be fermented to yield the alcoholic beverage "toddy". From toddy, the highly intoxicating drink arrack can be distilled and further fermentation gives the mild palm vinegar. The coconut product most important for cooking is coconut milk, called santen in Indonesia and gata in the Philippines.
Coconut milk is made by processing grated coconut with hot water, thereby extracting oil and aroma compounds. The result is a milky-white, opaque emulsion (approximately 20% fat) with a sweet coconut flavour. After some time, fat and water separate, yielding thick "coconut cream". Coconut milk is an extremely important ingredient for many cuisines of Asia. In the Western kitchen the lengthy preparation time is generally avoided by use of industrially produced coconut extracts "creamed coconut" sold in blocks to be dissolved in hot water.
Gravies containing desiccated coconut are popular in South India (sometimes in combination with yoghurt). Desiccated coconut is commonly ground together with asafoetida, cumin, coriander seeds, chillies and toasted lentils or beans to yield spice pastes (masalas) characteristic of a particular dish. Coconut oil is the most typical frying medium in South India.
A typical example of a vegetarian specialty containing coconut is bese bele, a dry dish typical of Bangalore made from vegetables, legumes and rice. Boiled vegetables are mixed with pureed lentils and flavoured with tart tamarind water and a sophisticated spice mixture made from lentils, split peas, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, chillies and shredded coconut, toasted brown together with smaller quantities of cinnamon and cloves. After steamed rice is added, the dish obtains additional flavours from curry leaves fried quickly in butter.
Coconut products are ubiquitous in the cuisine of Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan curries use coconut milk to thicken, add body and intensify the flavour when combined with toasted coriander and cumin seeds, curry leaves, pandanus leaves, lemon grass, cinnamon and cardamom. The bowl-shaped breads of Sri Lanka (hoppers) are composed of rice flour, coconut milk and yeast. From these ingredients a thin pouring dough is made which is then fried to a crisp texture.
Coconut is of importance on the Indonesian islands. A specialty of Western Sumatra is rendang, comprising beef or buffalo cubes cooked in coconut milk together with spices. Due to the long cooking period, even a tough bull is made tender and an unusual taste achieved. In most other recipes, Indonesians prefer short cooking times for cooking vegetables or meats in coconut milk.
In Thailand, the term for curry (kaeng or gaeng) almost always refers to food cooked in coconut milk. The aromatic pungency of Thai food is achieved by curry pastes, e.g. gaeng prik made by grinding chillies with fresh ginger, fingerroot, greater galangale, garlic and onion plus dried cumin and coriander seeds, typically with shrimp paste or dried fish enhanced with kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass and coriander leaves. Several standard recipes of curry pastes are known by their colours. Green curry paste prik gaeng kiaw contains green chillies, much garlic and coriander leaves. Red curry paste prik gaeng diang is much hotter, as it derives its colour from ripe red chillies dried and toasted before usage. Thai masaman curry paste is a milder red paste (introduced by Muslim traders from the Indian subcontinent) that contains aromatic spices in the Indian fashion (cinnamon, cloves, star anise and toasted ground coriander). A typical Thai recipe might ask for beef or chicken meat and several types of vegetable (aubergines, potatoes, bamboo shoots). Thai curries have rather thin, almost soupy, structure.
Coconut milk not only looks like milk but may be used as an alternative for milk in Western desserts (e.g. continental pudding), thus giving an unusual and exotic flavour. Coconut milk can also be used to make ice creams. Coconut aroma goes well with chocolate and it may be combined with other spices to create unusual sweets. Indonesians use pandanus leaves for this purpose.