The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is native to the coastal regions of tropical Southeast Asia. The seeds of this tall slender tree can float for months so ocean currents have carried it far and wide and commerce has carried it even farther. It is now grown in just about every suitable tropical region in the world.
Coconut is not just important to the cuisines of the regions where it
grows, but to the very survival of the people. The fruit provides protein,
calories, minerals, vitamins and flavors. From it come beverages, oil for
cooking and even the fire over which to cook. The shells make containers,
the fronds provide roofing material and the trunks provide building lumber.
Photo © b0005
Shown are the three forms whole coconuts are sold in: fresh (left, 5 inches diameter, 2-1/3 pounds, very full), brown (front, 4-3/4 inches diameter, 1-3/4 pounds, still quite full) and fresh young (right 5 inches diameter, 2-1/2 pounds).
Fresh Coconut and Brown Coconut are bought for the white flesh (called "copra") they contain. A fresh coconut still has a lot of water in it, palatable, but not as sweet as that of the fresh young coconut. The brown coconut will have less water and that water will be even less sweet, but still drinkable if there is a lot of it. The flesh of the brown coconut is harder and has a more intense flavor than that of the fresh coconut which is too soft and light in flavor for many recipes, and particularly for making coconut milk.
Fresh Young Coconuts are sold for the water they contain which is sweeter and more flavorful than that of older coconuts. They are trimmed as shown and a lot of the weight is wet fiber. They should be sold tightly wrapped in plastic film to retain moisture. The shell is still too soft to stand the fiber being ripped off, and the flesh is thin and so soft you can eat it with a spoon. The flesh has much less flavor and sweetness than that of a mature coconut. They are often sold by street vendors with a hole punched into them for a straw. This water, usually with flakes of the pulp, is widely available in cans (see products below). A 2-1/2 pound coconut will yield about 1-1/2 cups of water and 4 ounces of flesh (used in some recipes along with the water).
Mutant Gelatinous Coconut [Macapuno, Kopyor] This coconut is available in the Philippines and Indonesia where it is used for various desserts. It may be found preserved in syrup in stores catering to Philippine communities. The flesh of this coconut does not harden but stays gelatinous.Buying and Storing Coconuts
Fresh Coconuts will keep as long as 3 weeks but will start to turn brown and may crack. Keep them in a dry place or the fibers on the outside will mold. Brown Coconuts can also be kept a couple weeks if they still have plenty of water but not so long that they dry out.Preparing Coconuts
Preparing coconuts for use is simple but requires a bit of mechanical dexterity and strength. If you don't feel up to it have someone accustomed to using tools do it (some husbands are good for this, but others will just injure themselves).
Yield: A mature coconut should yield about 12 oz of copra (coconut meat) after shelling and peeling off the brown backing. This is equivalent to about 4 oz dried coconut. Dried grated coconut runs about 4 oz to one cup lightly packed so a whole coconut will be about 1 cup of dried grated coconut. So if an Indian recipe calls for "1/2 dried coconut grated", figure about 2 oz of dried grated coconut or 6 oz of fresh.
A fresh coconut will also yield about 1-1/2 cups of coconut water which is rarely used in recipes, so it's for the cook. Pour it into a 2 cup glass measuring cup and chill it up in the freezer with a judicious dollop of chilled vodka poured in. It'll improve your disposition and nobody'll suspect a thing, "Its just coconut water".
Here are the steps for preparing a coconut, but for more detail and
pictures see my page Coconut Milk
Fresh Young Coconut: These are nuts that are not yet mature. The flesh is jelly-like and lacks flavor, while the water, which fills the whole cavity, is very sweet. The photo to the left shows a whole nut from the tree, a similar nut cut in half, and a trimmed and bleached nut, the form normally found in markets.
Fresh young coconut will keep a week or so, but since the whole objective is the fresh juice inside, you want to minimize storage - the longer the storage the less juice. If kept moist the fiber on the outside will mold, and since the shell is very soft, mold could penetrate to the flesh and juice. If you keep it dry it'll dry out.
The water is a little less clear than from a mature coconut and it's
quite a bit sweeter. If you split the coconut open you can eat the
flesh with a spoon. It is thin, in some areas it may be so thin you can
see shell through it. The jelly like flesh is pleasant enough to eat but
it can't be used in any normal coconut recipe because the flavor is just