Cuckoo for Coconuts

Truth be told I was never that fond of raw coconut. Which is to say, taking an actual coconut, breaking it open and eating the white stuff on the inside. Mounds bars are, of course, another story. And macaroons. And coconut cream pie. Once coconut is shredded I will pretty much eat it with or in anything.

Shredded coconut
Shredded coconut

Coconut milk is what gives Thai dishes that distinct rich, fatty gloss. It is derived from the meat of a coconut by squeezing it through a cheesecloth. It can be purchased in the “international food” section of most supermarkets these days. In a bigger supermarket or one in a neighborhood with a South Asian population, you’ll find different grades of coconut milk from thick (>20 percent fat) to thin (<10 percent).

That is how most of us probably eat coconut: shredded or in the “milk” form. But in fact every part of the coconut plant is used for something in many cultures around the world, and it has been used for millennia. I remember reading in books like Mutiny on the Bounty or other novels about the mercantile period after the “Age of Discovery.” Ships were forever bringing cargos of breadfruit and copra from place to place. Breadfruit is a relative of the mulberry and a whole other story, but copra is the dried meat of the coconut, the source of coconut oil.

A coconut is not, strictly speaking, a nut. Nuts are by definition “indehiscent,” which means they do not open unless they are broken open (generally by an animal) or by chemical means (they weather and break down). A coconut is a drupe, which is a fruit that has a hard outer covering that protects the endosperm, which is the next generation of the plant. Drupes have an exocarp, a mesocarp, and an endocarp, successive layers around the endosperm.

You will rarely see the exocarp or the mesocarp unless you take a tropical vacation. The exocarp is a green outer layer a bit like that of a walnut. The mesocarp is a fibrous layer that yields a product called coir that is today used to make doormats, floor mats, mattresses, and brushes. For thousands of years it was woven to make rope.

The exocarp is green.
The exocarp is green.

When you buy a coconut in the supermarket you are looking at the endocarp, the hard brown layer immediately next to the white “meat.” In an unripe coconut the endosperm is suspended within the coconut water, but as it matures it is deposited around the inside of the endocarp.

The name “coconut” comes from the Spanish or Portugese word coco meaning “head” or “skull” and indeed the fruit is the size of a child’s head and it has three dimples in the top of it that resemble cranial features. Two of these dimples are hard and the third is softer; this is where the young plant emerges when a coconut germinates. If you want to grow a coconut “tree” (it isn’t technically a tree because it lacks bark and branches), then you only need to soak it in water for a few days and then put it in a bucket at least 10 inches deep filled with potting soil. One-third of the thing should be emergent. Under ideal circumstances it takes about three months to send up a shoot, but can take as long as six months. They grow rapidly and should have a cluster of leaves and begin to flower after about five years.

Quintessential tropical palm.
Quintessential tropical palm.

It is pretty hard to find a tropical beach poster without a coconut palm in it. They are found all over the world. It is still an unsettled question as to where they originated, but historical documents, archeological, and botanic evidence suggest the tropical Indo-Pacific region between India and Indonesia.

While pre-modern humans used every part of the plant for a multitude of purposes, technological man has found even more uses for molecules derived from the coconut. The initial inspiration for this post came from a tube of suntan lotion sitting on my desk. It is a cliché that suntan lotion smells like coconut oil, but upon inspection I found that the ingredient was more specifically coco glucoside. This turns out to be a surfactant, essentially something that makes substances foam and allows oils and water to get as close to mixing as possible. And, of course, it is derived from coconut oil.


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