(Cocos nucifera family Palmaceae)
Botanists disagree about whether the species originated in the East Indies and Melanesia or in America. Most think the former. Wherever they first came from, the main growing and exporting countries are now the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea. When Linnaeus gave a scientific name to the tree in the 18th century, he toyed with the idea of using “coccus”, which means berry in Latin. However, for some reason, he settle on Cocos. There is a diversity of views as to how the coconut got its name. Most take the etymology road. The word “coco” was first used by Portugese sailors who thought the three eyes of the nut looked like a monkey or some other grotesque face and used the Spanish word “coco” when referring to them. Also in the same century, another major confusion developed with the spelling of the name. The blame seems to lie with Dr. Johnson, who confused the two (coconut and cocoanut) in a single entry of his dictionary of 1755. The two spellings still occur today. Coco(nut) is not in any way related to cocoa and that alone should end the debate.
Coconuts are from the most useful tree in the world and flourishes on seashores in the moister parts of the tropics where the rainfall is greater than one and a half metres annually. Tolerant of salty, sandy soils, it will grow on strips of land where most other crops could not survive. Mature trees can reach a height of seventy-five feet developing slender, often curving trunks with a distinctive feathery crown of leaves at the top. The tree fruits from about the sixth year onward until the tree is about eighty years old. Green at first, the tree turns yellow as they age. The tall, branchless trunk of the palm can make harvesting very difficult but skilled bare-foot climbers often use ropes to help them ascend the trees. In some South East Asian countries, monkeys are trained to throw the fruits to the ground. The fruits may also be left to drop on their own or be cut from the trees by knives attached to long bamboo poles.
All parts of the fruit are useful. The thick layer of fibrous husk that lies beneath the outer skin can be combed and sold as coir, an important material used for making ropes and matting. The “meat” lies within this husk and is actually the nut of the fruit. The meat is white and fleshy with its cavity contains the “milk” that contains sugars that are gradually absorbed by the fruit as it ripens. The coconut palm has many uses and is a vital component of many local economies. Its trunk provides building materials. The leaves are used for thatching on rooves. Wood and leaves are also used for fuel and the fruit provides food, drink, and fibers. The most important part for commercial use is the dried coconut flesh called copra. The Philippines exports the most followed closely by Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and New Guinea. Though produced in small quantities, copra and coir are particularly important to many Pacific Island communities.
Florida’s development as a land of palm trees grew out of the shipwreck of the Providencia on the beach near Lake Worth on January 9, 1878. The ship was laden with coconuts from the south seas and within ten years of the wreck, some 350,000 trees sprang up along the coast. Because of tree losses by a disease called “lethal yellowing”, the common coconut is now being widely replaced by a dwarf form in Florida. The “Malayan Dwarf” is not really a dwarf but is disease-resistant and comes in three colour variations: green, yellow, and red. In Florida, the red is preferred to the golden. Under favourable conditions, the dwarf coconut palm bears when it is about four or five years old with only two or three feet of bare trunk exposed. The nuts are small and the copra not as good, but the crop can be heavy remaining on the tree. They do not fall to the ground when ripe as do those of the common coconut therefore, having a much shorter tree helps with the harvesting. Full production comes in their ninth or tenth year but the life expectancy of these trees is only one-third that of the taller varieties. One of the smallest fruited dwarf palms is the Cocos Nino of the Philippines but the Maldivian coconut has the smallest fruit of all – no bigger than an egg. The Macapuno coconut of the Philippines has no cavity occupied by liquid but is full of a gelatinous flesh which can be eaten with a spoon.
The familiar whole coconut is only the kernal of the fruit. The husk has already been removed before they are shipped to market. Inside the shell is a thin brown coat called the testa, which covers the kernel or the white meat. The center of this meat is hollow and filled with liquid. In a ripening fruit, the kernel has a creamy gelatinous texture and the liquid makes a refreshing drink. This “milk” is actually water and is known as such in the western world. However, in India and Southeast Asia, coconut milk refers to an emulsion like cow’s milk but containing less protein and more fat and if left to separate, coconut oil rises to the top.
Coconut has some sugars but no starch and is a good source of fiber. It contains incomplete proteins deficient in lysine and isoleucine. Coconuts contain small amounts of the B vitamins and larger amounts of minerals such as phosphorus, iron, magnesium, and zinc. Since most of the fruit consists of saturated fats (92%), it makes a good source of such fats (but not of Vitamin E) for vegetarians but not for those who have meat in their diet or those with high cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Coconut oil has no cholesterol but does have a higher concentration of saturated fatty acids than any other food. It should be noted that cholesterol is not found in any plant or its products but only found in animal fats, therefore, when a plant product is advertized as being cholesterol free, this is correct – albeit a little misleading.
When buying coconuts, be sure to shake it. If you cannot hear any liquid sloshing around, then assume that the nut is not fresh and has dried out. Avoid nuts that have dark spots at the top or mold anywhere on the shell. Both the liquid and the meat can be used raw or in cooking. Do not discard the valuable liquid but incorporate it into drinks or cooking.
– Copra is the name for the dried coconut meat having a water content of 5% or less. Fresh coconut meat will have about 50% water. The oil content is about 70% and the oil is produced from the copra.
– Coconut milk or cream is the thick, sweet liquid produced when boiling water is poured over grated coconut, cooled, and the liquid squeezed from the pulp through a straining cloth. Twice as much water by volume as grated coconut will yield “milk” of normal thickness. Half the amount of water will yield the thicker “cream”. The same pulp can be used several times producing a decreasingly rich milk. Coconut milk is a standard ingredient in some Indian and Southeast Asian cooking. Its content is less protein and more fat that that of the cow. The commercial coconut cream is not the same as the milk made at home.
– Desiccated coconut is made from the white part of the kernel after the brown skin has been removed. It is sterilized, frayed out with water into a wet pulp, dried, and sieved into different grades. The finest is called ‘macaroon’. Drying concentrates all of the nutrients and unsweetened shredded coconut has about twice as much protein, fat, carbohydrates, iron, and potassium as an equal amount of fresh coconut. Be aware that the sweetened shredded coconut contains about six times as much sugar as the unsweetened.
– Coconut oil can be made from fresh coconuts using a procedure still employed in local growing areas, but normally it is extracted from copra by pressing. The oil has a high proportion of saturated fatty acids and is therefore resistant to rancidity. It is liquid in tropical temperatures but solidifies at temperatures below 30°C (85°F). Almost tasteless after processing, the oil is extensively used in making margarine, confections, and bakery goods as well as for frying. It is especially important in the south of India where it is used for cooking.
– Sweets made from coconut include a syrup, made by heating coconut milk and invert sugar together. This results in something similar to golden syrup which is pure invert sugar. Coconut honey is a darker product made in the same way but with a little of the brown rind included and a longer cooking time. Cocolait is a commercially-made coconut milk with its composition adjusted to resemble that of cow’s milk.