Coconut - food

A 16th century explorer to India appreciated the virtues of coconuts when he wrote "as we have bread, wine, oil and vinegar, so in that country they extract all these things from this one tree." Coconut is indeed a key ingredient in South Asian cuisine, particularly in the south of India. From sweets and syrups to curries and chutneys, the fruits and other parts are eaten.

Coconuts

Coconut milk and cream is made by pouring boiling water over freshly grated meat and squeezing out the liquid.
A painting by an Indian artist illustrating a coconut palm and dissected coconut fruit.
Image: A cross section painting of a coconut shows the layers within the fruit.

It can be diluted with water to create different thicknesses for sweet and savoury dishes and baked products. It is particularly popular in South India and gives a unique and creamy texture to rice, chutneys and curries. Coconut milk and cream is sold in powdered and canned forms. In British shops it's most likely to be found in cans.

Desiccated coconut is the washed, steamed, shredded and dried meat used in sweets, baking, savoury dishes and as snack food. The oil is used for cooking in India, and to make margarine, ice creams and sweets. Oil can be processed using fresh coconut or more often, by pressing dried coconut meat, known as copra. Ball copra is an Indian speciality produced by slow drying, de-husking and shelling of the whole nut. It is used to prepare sweets offered during religious and cultural events. Coconut water from the seed cavity is sweet, and is now commercially extracted and preserved as a drink.

Palm hearts and sap

Photograph of a sample of coconut jaggery from Kew's Economic Botany Collection.
Image: Chunks of coconut sugar, known as jaggery, made from the sap.

As with many other palms, the heart is a delicacy. It is the tender, young apex at the top of the stem, also known also as palm cabbage. Coconut palms yield one of the heaviest palm hearts, which can weigh in at up to 12 kg. A sweet sap, known as toddy, or neera in India, is tapped from unopened flowering branches. To collect the sap, the base of the flowering branch is bashed with a mallet and a small slit is made in the skin covering the flowering branch. A container is placed beneath the slit to collect the fluid that oozes out. This can be boiled to give a rich palm sugar, known as jaggery or gur.

Jaggery is fermented into an alcoholic wine which, in turn, can be distilled into a strong liquor called arak. Palm wine is produced as a by-product of palm vinegar.