On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Getting The Most Out Of Coconuts
Seeing a coconut lying under the tree was always a reason to smile. Wife Thu and Footloose Forester were fortunate to live in Hawaii where coconut palms are abundant, so we had lots of coconuts in our ample closet and lots of opportunities to add to the stash. Sometimes a nut or two was hurled from the trees lining the avenues he bicycled on his way to work. It was easy to strap one or two nuts on the rear rack of his bicycle; and he soon learned that motorists seldom impeded traffic by stopping along the road, then getting out to retrieve an orphaned coconut. A bicyclist could do it easily and never inconvenienced anyone. So, there were seldom any competitors for the scattered nuts one encountered after a major rainstorm or typhoon. Except, of course, for the municipal road crews who were obliged to keep roads and sidewalks free of debris.
Coconuts are so useful that you can never tell just how the tree and its fruits will be useful. Among all of the trees on earth, the coconut palm, Cocus nucifera is arguably the most useful of all. The tree itself is an iconic symbol of tropical locales and warm breezes. Its fronds provide shade year-round in standing trees; and cut fronds are sources of roof thatch and fencing. Individual leaves have long been used to fashion hats and baskets. The main blades of fronds are often used as temporary poles and garden stakes. The severed trunks and various parts of the boles are used on site in village construction in tropical settings; and also for tools and implements. A fibrous inner bark of the trunk and from the interior of coconut husks is stripped and processed into a weave used in water filtration, for matting; and for packing material. Husks are often used directly as fuel; and burning husks are used to ward off mosquitoes.
People from all over the world are most familiar, however, with the rounded interior nut that holds the edible part of a coconut. The dark chocolate brown globes can be found in supermarkets in any country; and everybody knows what the insides are like.
The dried meat of the coconut when marketed as an individual commodity is known as copra; and the copra industry is prominent in several tropical countries. But the liquid inside is also processed and handled separately. Upon opening a coconut, the clear liquid, or water, is drained out and saved separately for manufacturing into soft drinks. The milk of the coconut comes from squeezing the meat. Coconut milk is saved and processed separately for use in confections, baked goods and as seasoning in curries. The dry pulp and shredded meat are also processed as packaged condiments.
In our apartment in Honolulu, the large closet that kept our store of accumulated coconuts usually got emptied out when the number reached 20-25 coconuts. That was the time to undertake the project of processing our acquisitions. It was an activity that we gladly anticipated.
The day-long project went something like this: First came hauling them out to the back of our station wagon for a short drive to our private husking grounds on the University of Hawaii campus. At that quiet spot hidden behind thorny bushes, we had previously installed a seasoned, sharpened stick that we jammed into the ground, point facing upward at a severe angle. Next came taking an unhusked nut in hand and forcefully jamming it into the point of the stick. The trick was to twist the husk in your hand and rend the husk along one side; then re-position the husk and jamb it into the stick’s point an inch or so from the first strip, until the whole husk was stripped away. With some practice, a good husker can peel a coconut down to its bare nut in about 30 seconds. A couple of good Samoan friends taught us this technique, but we never could excel their speed at husking. The outer husks were then piled up for their next purpose. We were after the bald nuts that then got piled back into the station wagon, for further processing at home.
Cracking open a hard-shelled coconut also takes some planning to make the job quick and efficient. Although green coconuts have relatively soft outer husks and are easy enough to slice open at the top for instant liquid refreshment, the older that the husk is, the tougher it becomes. And the older the coconut, the more questionable becomes the quality of its water for drinking. For that reason, we carefully opened each nut by cracking them over an open basin and taste-testing its contents before transferring the contents to a large pitcher. Those that had little or no water left; or had an unsatisfactory taste, we separated out.
Next came the removal of the meat of the coconut. Sometimes we were interested in having long strips for snacks. We used a sharp knife to score the white meat from top to bottom inside the broken hemisphere of its shell. Scoring thin slices made it easier to extract the meat in strips. If we wanted to use the coconut meat in cooking and baking, then we used a special scraper to shred the meat unto a clean cloth. A photo of a typical old-school scraper found in tropical countries in Asia and Africa is shown below.
A typical coconut shredder.... this one is from Africa
Local craftsmen typically fashion a steel spud with sharpened teeth arranged in a circular pattern at its head. For stability of the operator him/herself; or for the coconut itself, the person doing the shredding sits on a small stool that is actually part of the shredding tool. The finished products, mounds of shredded coconut meat, are then squeezed through a fine muslin cloth to extract the milk of the coconut that is used in cooking. The clear water from the nut is drunk fresh or refrigerated for later enjoyment; but the milk of the coconut is kept separately and used as a principal flavoring agent in curries and ragu dishes. Chicken curry flavored with coconut milk is very special. Finally, the squeeze-dried pulp is saved for subsequent inclusion in pancake and waffle batter. Our uses of local coconuts was not much different than those who subsist on them, but at least we knew and appreciated how valuable the coconut palm really is.
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Oh how I love the coconut and all the various parts. The actual coconut oil used in cooking is also very good for your skin and hair. That was a very factual helpful story, thank you.
Upon re-reading this story after three years, I can still smell the perfume of coconut oil in the air of Ceylon. These days it is called Sri Lanka, but fresh coconut oil is still used in cooking, hand creams, hair dressings, candies, and snacks that are everywhere. Those olfactory memories are hard-wired into my brain.