Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Behold, The Coconut

Ahhhh... the coconut.

Is there a more mystical plant than cocus nucifera, the venerable coconut palm? It's very appearance and structure is a metaphor for life itself. It's three layers map to the three planes of existence outlined in yogic literature. There is the grossly physical outer shell, a thick husk which must be removed before anything useful can be done. The astral inner shell contained within the husk, as hard to penetrate as the yogic literature itself, and finally, the causal portion of the nut, containing the blissful essence of coconut, the sweet meat and refreshing juice. Much as the yogis endeavour to reach the incalculable inner bliss of the causal plane, cooks all over Southern India perform time-honoured rituals to reach the inner part of the coconut.

Is there a more useful thing in Southern India than a coconut tree? This one tree gives so much, and asks so little. From it we get the obvious, which is yummy fresh shredded coconut, a mainstay in Keralan cooking, but it also provides cool and refreshing coconut water when the coconuts are green, coir fiber to weave mats with, leaves to fashion roofing with, vinegar and oil to cook with, toddy to numb the brain, and most importantly, shade on a hot day. There are many layers of nuance to the use of the coconut that I never even dreamed of before I came here. I have learned that the white meat inside the nut is actually a jelly for the first few months of its life as a nut, and eating that jelly is said to be calming to the stomach. You can buy these green ones on the street or on the beach, and after you drink the nice refreshing water inside, the vendor will split the nut open, and cut a piece of the exterior off to use as a spoon so that you can scoop out the jelly. The jelly starts to turn to firm white meat after about 6 months, and a true connoisseur will monitor the growth of the nuts on his tree and select the ones that are 11 or 12 months old in order to make the sweetest curries.

The less said about the toddy, the better.

The first challenge when you get a coconut, is how to open the darn thing. It's bloody difficult to do. That is, of course, unless you know "the trick". My friend Gee showed me the trick this week after a visit to his house for a breakfast of roast duck curry (with liver!), vegetable curry, puttu, and string hoppers. Gee's family has a farm outside of Cochin, and his family makes regular runs to it to get vegetables, bananas, and coconuts. Gee gave Laurel and me a big bag of coconuts and another of bananas to take home. We were grateful, of course, but I lamented my lack of industrial power tools that assumed would be necessary to open the coconuts. Gee said "No, there's a little trick to it. It's very easy". Then he proceeded to demonstrate. Well, almost. He described the procedure but didn't actually open a nut before our eyes. "You see the three eyes at the end of the nut?", he said. "There are two that look the same, and one that looks different". I looked. There was. "Hold the nut in your hand. Make sure that the eye that looks different is facing up. Then hit it with anything around the equator, and it will crack easily". Sounded simple enough. Too simple. I was dubious.

Once back at our house, I resolved to put the theory to the test. Laurel had bought a little wooden roller for making parotta and other flatbreads, and I thought it might be a little light, but I'll try it. In my left hand, I held the nut so that the 3 eyes were close to my thumb. If you think of the eyes as being the North Pole, you flip the poles so that they line east -> west, instead of north -> south. Following Gee's instruction, I ensured that the odd eye was topmost. I tapped the coconut with the small rolling pin at the equator, and to my great surprise, the nut cracked and the water within cascaded out. This informed me that the next time I do this, I should stand over the sink... I was amazed at the ease of it. As an experiment, I got another coconut and held it differently. No amount of whacking it would make it budge! But hit it around the equator with that odd eye facing up, and it works every time. This is one cool trick. It ranks up there with spinning an egg on its side to determine if its been hard boiled or not. Hard boiled eggs stop immediately when you try to stop them, fresh eggs want to keep spinning. This is real mystical kitchen lore. Try it at home. Amaze your friends.

Next on the task list was how to get the meat out of the coconut and into some food. The solution is delightfully low tech, yet incredibly efficient. The shredder is a little piece of wood with a curved piece of metal bolted onto it. At the business end of the piece of metal is something that looks like a jagged tin leaf. You simply rub the coconut meat against the jagged leaf, and in a very short time, you can remove all the meat from half a coconut and have it prepped for cooking or extracting coconut milk. Here' a good simple one to try. If you can't get your hands on a fresh nut and a shredder, substitute a cup of dried unsweetened coconut. A better solution is to get thee to an Asian market (our favourite standby is Asia Market on Hastings street in Vancouver) and see if they have any fresh coconut in the freezer. At any rate, try this one. The version here is with cabbage, but it works just as well with shredded beets, beans, or any other vegetable.

1/2 large green cabbage, finely shredded
1 cup or so of shredded fresh coconut (the meat from about half a coconut)
2- 3 tbsp coconut oil, or ghee
1 cup minced onions or shallots.
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp black mustard seeds
8-10 fresh curry leaves
3 whole green chilis, slit
1 tsp chili powder
3 cloves garlic
1/2 inch of fresh ginger
salt to taste

mince the garlic and ginger to a paste, adding a little water if needed
Heat the oils in a large wok, and when its hot add the mustard seeds.
In a few moments, they should sputter, add the curry leaves, and the whole green chilis.
quickly add the onions, and continue stirring until they are translucent.
add the garlic, & ginger, turmeric and chili powder, and keep stirring until the spices smell cooked
add the cabbage, and stir the mixture until the cabbage cooks through. I like it when it starts to dry out a little and brown.
add the coconut and continue stirring until everything is well mixed and a little drier.
add salt to taste (1 tsp?), stir, and place in a serving bowl.
Serve at room temperature as part of a curry dinner!

So that's it. The universe explained. In a nutshell.


Chris said...

In true codemonkey fashion you have written the definitive technical specifications and user's manual for th ehumble coconut. Good work!

MACS said...

My dream come true! Just last week I was wondering how to get into a fresh coconut, imaging it to be very difficult. I thought perhaps smashing it with a hammer on the kitchen floor, but then I was a little concerned about the water running all over... I'm going to try it your way! Loving your pictures, your blog and the recipes. Keep 'em comin'.

Denys and Jill said...

Ah but you left out the most difficult part - getting the nut out of the husk, something that has to be done before you can think about cracking it. Of course, when you go and buy the nut from a store, you don't have that problem but you've missed all the fun. I've broken two swiss army knives on that task.