The culinary versatility of the beloved coconut
I love coconut bake. I’m always searching for ways to make the “perfect” version. This simple, lightly leavened bread is something that says comfort to me. What we West Indians call bake is a staple in many homes, because it’s quickish and easy to make, if you don’t mind kneading dough. There are many variations, but for me, coconut lends the sweetness and texture that make a bake irresistible.
It’s only recently that I’ve given serious thought to how ubiquitous coconut is in Caribbean cuisine, particularly baking and confectionery. If you walk into a bakery, you’ll find coconut drops, coconut tarts, coconut turnovers, pone, and coconut bakes. Head to Store Bay, Tobago, and among the much-sought-after sweets sold by vendors there, you’ll find sugar cake (shredded coconut cooked with sugar and spices), toolum (shredded coconut cooked with molasses and spices), and chip chip (chipped coconut cooked with sugar and spices).
There are several key savoury dishes that aren’t complete without coconut milk — like breadfruit oildown, for example. Trinis, Grenadians, and Vincentians argue about who makes the best oildown, but everyone agrees that coconut milk — the kind made from fresh blended coconut, not the powder from the pack that’s mixed with water — is crucial.
My coconut education got a proper upgrade a few months ago, when I received a copy of Cooking with Coconut, a book by American chef and food journalist Ramin Ganeshram. Ganeshram’s father was Trinidadian, and he was a major influence in her approach to appreciating food. She is also the author of Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad and Tobago, one of the best cookbooks about our cuisine.
Cooking with Coconut is one of the few mainstream coconut-only cookbooks on the market. In an interview, Ganeshram said she wrote it as a result of the growing popularity of coconut as a “superfood.” “I began to notice first that the cuisine of coconut-heavy cultures was coming into the mainstream,” she says, “and then, that coconut itself was taking hold as a crossover ingredient, beginning with coconut water. Today, coconut has ‘jumped the shark’ if you will. I even see house cleaning products with coconut here in the US.”
Although coconut might be at risk of becoming over-exposed, Ganeshram believes that, based on responses to the book, coconut is being explored by people with alternative dietary preferences. “The book has been most popular with coconut lovers, but I’ve been pleased to see that it has created some converts — usually from people eating carb-free, gluten-free diets or vegan diets, who are willing to try coconut as a substitute for various things.”
Cooking with Coconut is the first cookbook I’ve seen that gives details about using all the parts of the coconut, from coconut meat to coconut milk, to coconut nectar and coconut flour. Some of these are not usually seen on our supermarket shelves here in the Caribbean, but do bear some exploration — like tadi, or the sap of the coconut palm. Ganeshram explains in the book that it “can be consumed immediately as a beverage, or aged in a process that produces vinegar.” The potential is similar to fruit vinegars like strawberry or cranberry vinegar. It can be used for salads, ceviche, or marinating meats.
The book also gives an exciting survey of dishes from a range of cultures. For example, Ganeshram gives an updated version of the Filipino classic sinigang (sour tamarind soup). There’s also Thai chicken satay, Korean pancakes with coconut pajeon, Indian-inspired coconut tikka masala, and Brazilian-style coconut cashew chicken, among others. Ganeshram admits that the way Filipinos use coconut in their cuisine is most intriguing to her. “They use the whole fruit, she explains. “You find coconut vinegars, liquor, syrup, as well as the meat and milk. Of course, most of the commercially available coconut in the world comes from the Philippines as well. I love Filipino coconut desserts — they are so different from Caribbean desserts, straddling both Asia and Europe in format and taste.”
When asked if she feels Caribbean cooks could be using coconut more creatively, Ganeshram unsurprisingly says yes. “I often say that coconut is the ‘vanilla’ of the Caribbean,” she explains. “This is both good and bad — it means it’s both everywhere but also it’s not much thought about.
“We as Caribbean people could be using coconut with a lot more creativity than we do — the way that American chefs have started to use jackfruit as a meat substitute. In Cooking With Coconut, I created a ‘meaty’ vegan patty filling with coconut that works extremely well. I’ve been experimenting with cuisines that use coconut naturally, such as south Indian or Thai. When it comes to our own cuisine, I’ve been adding coconut where we might not normally — in curry, for example, or in vegetable dishes to add a certain texture.”
Locally, in Trinidad and Tobago, there has been a noticeable return to a particular coconut product: coconut oil. A few years ago, cold-pressed virgin coconut oil started appearing on our shelves. It isn’t cheap, but it does tout many benefits. Coconut oil was widely used in the Caribbean as a hair product, skin moisturiser, and cooking oil for many years, but people stopped using it because it can get rancid and begin to smell awful quite quickly. The process of cold pressing makes a purer oil, and it is more effective for baking, making vinaigrettes, and even eating on its own.
Lately, more people in T&T are turning to coconut oil for the health benefits. To add to the options for cooks who use coconut oil, the Coconut Growers Association launched a range of infused oils in 2017. The market for the chilli-, lemon-, and garlic-infused oils is still small, but it is growing.
And of course we can’t forget one of the biggest-selling coconut products: coconut water. From a health perspective, it’s a great source of electrolytes and minerals. But for pure pleasure, it is amazing. Add coconut water to any spirit, and you have a delightful drink. This is what is driving sales of coconut water across the region. In fact, the demand is so huge that some sellers are resorting to unscrupulous measures.
At a coconut growers’ conference in 2017, Dr Compton Paul of the Caribbean Agricultural Research Development Institute warned consumers about this. The demand for coconut water is so high, he said, that people are harvesting the nuts at five or six months of their development, when the nuts should be harvested closer to nine months. Manufacturers are also using artificial coconut water flavours, and they’re diluting the sweet coconut water to stretch it.
So with the demand for coconut water and other products growing in the Caribbean, it looks like it will be a while before our beloved coconut “jumps the shark.”