The coconut is the tree of life. There is no part of it that is not useful for human beings. The trunk makes for building material and the long pinnate leaves can be fashioned into everything from thatched roofs to baskets. The sap from the floral stalks is sweet enough to be turned into palm jaggery or boiled down into coconut honey and has enough yeast to naturally ferment itself into intoxicating toddy. Both the flowers and the apical buds are edible and we haven’t even come to the pièce de resistance—the almost kilogram-and-a- half heavy fruit, with a fibrous husk that is used to make coir, a woody shell that serves as a serving cup or ladle, an astonishingly flavourful white flesh that is 35% fat and, let’s not forget, a delicious summer drink that can be had straight from the fruit. It is food and drink in a shell. It is, to use the Sanskrit compound noun, the Kalpavriksha.
When that Gurgaon SUV driver of mythological characters, the sage Vishwamitra, decided he was going to violate all the known laws of physics in the Ramayan cinematic universe, he is said to have used a long pole to keep king Trishanku suspended between heaven and earth, a pole that later turned into Cocos nucifera, a name this tree gets from the word coco, Spanish for monkey face.
The history of this amazing tree is as fascinating as its eye-pleasing, sinuous shape hugging coastlines around the world. The fruit is designed to keep the baby coconut inside nourished for almost a full year. This means that a mature coconut can simply fall into the sea and travel thousands of kilometres and start growing on a beach somewhere else. This is how the tree is said to have spread from its ancestral home in South-East Asia to almost every tropical coastline in the world. Since plants rarely leave fossils, we turn to linguistics to trace its migratory path. The Sanskrit word for it, narikelam, is said to come from an aboriginal Munda word, which by itself comes from the South-East Asian words niyor for oil and kolai for nut. Even the Tamil word for coconut, thenga (meaning southern fruit), hints at its South-East Asian origin.
The flesh of a mature coconut is 45% water, 35% fat (most of it saturated fat, which makes it like animal fat), 10% carbohydrates and 5% protein. The uniquely nutty, sweet and aromatic flavour profile of the flesh comes from molecules that are derivatives of saturated fatty acids called lactones.
The fresh flesh can be grated into a paste and used as a thickening agent that also lends a rich flavour to many dishes from south India. The paste is essentially cell debris mixed with coconut fat droplets and water. The best way to extend its shelf life is to freeze the grated coconut paste as ice cubes. In fact, you can go one step further and blend spices with the coconut and freeze that as a quick flavour bomb which can be added to dishes. The fats in the coconut dissolve a lot of spice flavour molecules, one of the reasons so many dishes from the south feature coconut. There is an entire category of steamed dishes called koottu that do not, like almost all other Indian dishes, start with hot oil and spices. Legumes and vegetables are simply steamed and a paste of coconut with spices is added right at the end.
Dishes made with coconut also tend to lacto-ferment faster than most other dishes because, unlike, say, groundnuts, coconut has a higher amount of free sugars. So, it’s best to refrigerate coconut-based dishes right away. When the fresh flesh is grated, mixed with water and strained of all solids, you get coconut milk, which is used like a non-dairy creamer in many south Indian and South-East Asian dishes and is a popular vegan dairy alternative.
When you don’t want the coarser mouthfeel of grated coconut, you can use the milk to create a rich creamy base for dishes. The term moilee (apparently from Malay) was used to describe mild meat or seafood gravies by the British. They preferred these coconut milk-based dishes to the fierier local ones.
Because of its high levels of saturated fat, coconut flakes mixed with spices like pepper and cumin, salt and liquid smoke (a mixture of soy sauce and dissolved wood-smoke flavour) can be baked in the oven to produce something that tastes remarkably like bacon.
Dried or desiccated coconut has a longer shelf life because of lower moisture levels but it will also turn rancid after a few days at room temperature because unrefined coconut fat will break down into free fatty acids. Dried coconut can be used to add a delicious nutty flavour to spice mixes like goda masala and dishes like bisibelebaath.
You can also add a tiny bit of instant yeast to fresh coconut water (with some added sugar to help the yeast get going) and let it ferment for a couple of days to make a deliciously fizzy and mildly alcoholic beverage. Using coconut palm jaggery or sugar instead of regular sugar adds slightly more depth of flavour to desserts and is less cloyingly sweet than cane sugar.
One of the most under-appreciated products of this tree is coconut vinegar, made from the fermentation of palm sap wine. Its flavour is milder than that of apple cider vinegar and the presence of large amounts of dead yeast (the yeast die after converting sugars to alcohol and run out of food once the bacteria take over) ensures that it packs an umami punch. Umami comes from the presence of an amino acid called glutamic acid that is naturally present in yeast. Coconut vinegar is quite commonly used on the western coast but it really deserves to be used more widely—it’s one of the richest-flavour souring agents.
There is an urban legend in Kerala that the coconut tree is sentient enough to know when human beings are standing under it and will not drop its fruit on their heads. While this is obviously not true, it is not surprising that the tree’s versatility makes one feel there may be some truth to it.
Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking.