Monday, October 1, 2012

All About Coconuts in India

In India, coconuts symbolize purity, fertility and blessing. Many religious events involve breaking open a coconut, the very act of which signifies man offering himself to the gods. If one attended the Chath festival in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, seeing women wade in the Ganges River with coconut offerings would not be unusual. Nor would it be odd to see the cremation ceremonies involving pouring coconut water over the bones, or seeing coconut shells and husks to light a funeral pyre. These are but a few anecdotes of coconut’s vital role in Indian culture.

Origin of Coconuts
With coconut fossils dating back 15 million years ago, the fruit’s history is a long one. Indeed, coconut’s origins reveal the history of several disciplines: the history of trade, the migration of humans, and the history of geography. While ethnobotanists initially argued whether coconuts came from the Indian Basin, or the Pacific Basin, a present theory holds that these two regions cultivated two distinct types of coconuts.

These two types of coconuts are apparent today—the smooth, brightly-colored yellow or green water-holding coconuts; and the fibrous, oblong fruits used to make coconut shredded “meat” and oil. While the water-holding coconuts are believed to hail from the Pacific countries of Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia, the fibrous ones are believed to originate in India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Lakshadweep (formerly Laccadive).

In 2011, the Washington University in St Louis conducted extensive research on the genetics of coconut varieties by tracking the fruit’s migration to other countries. For instance, the Arabs and Persians brought Indian basin coconuts to East Africa, while the Portuguese brought Indian coconuts over to East Africa. Pacific basin coconuts were introduced to Panama in the Pre-Colombian times, and the Austronesians brought Pacific coconuts to Madagascar. 

Today, coconuts grow all over the world in warm, tropical countries. 2011 figures from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimate that 80 countries grow coconuts, with a total production of 61 million tons annually. The highest producing coconut countries are the Philippines, Indonesia, and India, respectively.

Availability of Coconuts in India
India produces approximately 20 million tonnes of fruit annually. Coconuts are an integral part in India’s heritage from its Hindu roots to its cuisine. According to Lynne Gibson’s book, “Hinduism,” the coconut’s three indentations represent two eyes and the third eye, or, man’s connection to divine consciousness. Breaking the coconut is thus symbolizes shattering man’s vices, and revealing the divine, pure, untouched inner white flesh.

4 regions of India comprise 92% of the country’s coconut production: Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Unsurprisingly, these regions feature the fruit in several of their classic dishes. A Keralan string hopper, for example, isn’t complete without sweet condensed coconut milk or rich, savory coconut chutney.

Coconut trees pepper the landscape of the south, be it in a well-planned coconut grove or as a casual neighborhood tree vying with a cliff date palm for the honor of the tallest plant. Locals make use of every part of a coconut, from the fruit to the frond. An endless number of items derive from the humble coconut, including brooms, a type of charcoal, compost, fiber, rope, alcohol, wine, vinegar and dishware. Though many trees fight for survival with impending urbanization, coconut trees are likely to thrive in India for centuries to come.

Where to find Coconuts in India

Coconuts are one of the easiest fruits to find in India, be it by buying refreshing coconut water from the vendor on the street corner or eating an appam in a south Indian dhabba. Coconuts grow year-round, and are especially easy to find in Central and South India. Though northern states of India may not have as many coconut hawkers with machetes, the fruit is still ubiquitous in produce stores of all sizes.

Checking for Ripeness in Coconuts
The ripeness of coconuts depends on the variety and desired end use. Green coconuts are excellent for their nourishing water; brown hairy coconuts have a white flesh that, when scraped, make for excellent use in sambols, curries and desserts.

The best way to determine a coconut’s freshness is by the taste and color of its flesh. While a slight pinkish/purplish tinge on the meat is acceptable, it should not be dark purple, and the coconut should not have slimy water. Taste the water if in doubt: if spoiled, it will taste overly sour, fermented and overwhelmingly metallic. Obvious signs also include dry, wrinkled meat with discolored water. When touching the inside of the young coconut, its flesh should be firm and only slightly giving: if it’s overly mushy or bruised along with the aforementioned factors, the coconut is likely overripe.

Eating overripe coconut is unlikely to cause severe health issues. As is the case with eating any fermented food, it’s possible to get a small stomach upset, but it’s more likely that one’s taste buds will stop a person before ingesting too much of the overripe fruit.

King coconut water
Taste of Coconuts
The taste of fresh coconuts may be surprising to those accustomed to eating it only in sweetened desserts or savory dishes. Coconut is a bit like tofu, as it’s not always palatable when eaten by itself. When integrated with other flavors and ingredients, however, coconuts develop complex, nuanced, rich flavors.

Coconut water tastes sweet, slightly salty, and slightly metallic. Indeed, fresh coconut water differs from the sweetened, pasteurized versions sold in overseas markets. Expect a toned down, less zesty flavor than the packaged varieties. The ratio of salt, sweet and metallic depends the variety and health of the tree: green coconut water is more subdued and less sweet than yellow king coconuts, which are more robust and sweeter.

Coconut jelly is the gelatinous meat scooped from young green coconuts. The texture is as slimy as a jellyfish, and the taste is somewhat bland. It’s not a satisfying snack by itself, and it’s recommended to blend the jelly with other fruits to add richness and a creamy consistency. If getting coconut water from a vendor, ask him to scoop out the meat. Otherwise, he’ll set the coconut aside and eat it later himself.

Coconut meat tastes nutty and rich, and is sold in the form of powder or flakes.

Nutritional Value of Coconuts
Nutritional information of coconut water:
1 cup of coconut water has…
8.9g Carbs (7% RDI)
2.6g Fiber (11% RDI)
.4g Saturated fat (2% RDI)
1.7g protein (4% RDI)
.1mg B1/Thiamine (7% RDI)
.1mg B2/Riboflavin (12% RDI)
.1mg B5/Pantothenic Acid (2% RDI)
.1mg B6/Pyridoxine (6% RDI)
7.2ug Folate (2% RDI)
5.8mg Vitamin C (8% RDI)
57.6mg Calcium (6% RDI)
.1mg Copper (11% RDI)
.7mg Iron (4% RDI)
60mg Magnesium (19% RDI)
.3mg Manganese (19% RDI)
48mg Phosphorous (7% RDI)
600mg Potassium (13% RDI)
2.4ug Selenium (4% RDI)
252mg Sodium (17% RDI)
.2mg Zinc (3% RDI)

The nutritional value of coconut meat per 100g is as follows…
15.2g Carbs (12% RDI)
9g Fiber (36% RDI)
33.5g Fat (52% RDI)
.4g Omega-6 Fatty Acids (3% RDI)
29.7g Saturated Fats (148% RDI)
3.3g Protein (7% RDI)
.1mg B1/Thiamine (6% RDI)
.5mg B3/Niacin (4% RDI)
.3mg B5/Pantothenic Acid (6% RDI)
.1mg B6/Pyridoxine (4% RDI)
26ug Folate (7% RDI)
3.3mg Vitamin C (4% RDI)
.2mg Vitamin E (2% RDI)
.4mg Copper (48% RDI)
2.4mg Iron (14% RDI)
32mg Magnesium (10% RDI)
1.5mg Manganese (83% RDI)
113mg Phosphorous (16% RDI)
356mg Potassium (8% RDI)
10.1ug Selenium (18% RDI)

1.1mg Zinc (14% RDI)

Health Benefits of Coconuts
Unfortunately, the high fat content of coconuts can deter people from eating too much of them; in reality, the health benefits of coconuts are staggering. In a pinch, doctors have used its water as an IV drip to revive stroke patients and rehydrate those who have spent too much time in the sun.

Traditionally, coconuts have been used in a number of remedies. In Ayurveda, coconut water soothes the intestines and is known as a krimighna, or, an anti-parasitic. Practitioners recommend drinking coconut water to help flush kidney stones and promote bladder health. When applied topically, the water soothes burns and cuts. The pulp acts as a coolant, and reduces acidity. Coconut oil’s main Ayurvedic function is for scalp health, particularly for vatta types (or, those prone to having dry hair and split ends).

Mainstream science affirms many of these benefits:
--According to a 2010 study published in Pharmaceutical Biology, virgin coconut oil displayed anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antipyretic properties.
-Keeps the immune system strong
-Coconuts are loaded with powerful antioxidants, which keeps cells healthy, reduces signs of aging, keeps skin looking youthful, and wards off degenerative diseases. Additionally, coconut oil has the highest temperature point than any other oil (save, perhaps, macadamia nut oil) before its proteins denature from the heat.
--Contrary to what the fruit’s high saturated fat would infer, Dr. Conrado Dayrit explains in the Philippine Journal of Cardiology how groups that consume coconut regularly did not have high serum cholesterol, nor high rates of heart disease or morbid obesity.
--A 2007 study published in the Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research found that coconut husk extracts illustrated cytotoxic activity leukemia cells, thus showing potential as an inexpensive source of antineoplastic and anti-multidrug resistant drug.
--As per a 2011 study published in the Journal of Cellular Biology found that kinetin riboside, a natural compound found in coconut milk, inhibits proliferation of cancer cells.
--According to research presented at the 2012 Society for General Microbiology conference, coconut oil may prevent tooth decay based on its potent antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
--A 2009 study published in the journal, Lipids reveals that dietetic supplementation of coconut oil does not cause dyslipidemia and in fact, promotes a reduction in abdominal obesity.

--According to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, coconut oil’s compound, monolaurin, shows strong antibacterial activities against bacteria from skin infections.

How to Open/Cut
Opening a tender coconut is an art, perfected by the street vendor armed and ready with his blunt machete. With smooth yellow or green coconuts, take a large thick knife and whack the top of the fruit. Make shallow cuts along husk, and use the blade to lever the husk away from the fruit. When enough of the fruit’s top has been cut away, pierce the knife into the fruit and wedge the blade to create a rupee-sized hole. Drain and drink the water. If desiring the jelly, enlarge the coconut hole atop the fruit and scoop out the slimy flesh.

There are several methods of opening the tough-husked coconut. First, use a sharp knife to pierce the eyes of the coconut. If difficult, use a screwdriver placed atop the eyes and gently tap a hammer on the tool to pierce these holes. Drain the coconut water in a bowl, and then strain it.

Take the hammer to crack the coconut, gently rotating it with every whack. This should achieve a uniform cut that severs the fruit in two. Once halved, hammer into smaller pieces if desired.

To extricate the meat, take a sharp paring knife and wedge the blade where the brown husk joins the white meat. Use the knife as a lever to remove the tough meat, as it will often come off in large chunks. Remove any of the thin brown shell sticking to the white meat by scraping it away using a vegetable peeler. Grate the meat to process it into coconut flakes.

Small, whole brown coconuts keep for two months in the refrigerator. While it’s best to store the large, green or yellow coconuts in the fridge as well, their large size often renders this impractical. Instead, keep the fruits in a storage area with dry, cool temperatures, and open within a week or two.

Fresh, unpasteurized coconut water is highly perishable, and should be refrigerated immediately. Ideally, store the water in a stainless steel container: Doing so will prevent light and oxygen from hastening its fermentation. Drink within a week. Freezing the coconut water will preserve its shelf life for up to two months. 

The jelly and meat should be covered in water, preferably in the coconut’s own liquid. Store in the refrigerator. Use the jelly within three days and the meat within a week. Or, shred the coconut meat and keep in the freezer. Frozen, shredded meat keeps for six months.

Coconut Recipe Ideas and Uses
Coconut has more culinary applications than perhaps any other fruit. Its adaptable flavor goes well in desserts, drinks and savory meals. Additionally, several parts of the coconut may be used, such as the water, meat, jelly, and oil. 

Coconut Milk:
--Coconut milk serves as the base of several dishes in Kerala, particularly curry: Stir fry onions in coconut oil, then add turmeric, cardamom, chili pods and chili powder until fragrant. Add more oil along with ginger and garlic. Sautee tofu and any desired vegetables before adding coconut milk and leaving to simmer on a low heat for a few minutes.
--Make ice cream by whisking coconut milk with vanilla, salt, and maple syrup. Reduce the thickness by adding coconut water, chocolate soymilk, almond milk, chai tea, or any other flavored beverage. The concoction will lose some of its sweetness once frozen, so add a bit more sugar than believed necessary. Freeze until thoroughly chilled. Use a powerful hand blender or food processor to whip the frozen concoction into ice cream consistency.
--Create a tropical smoothie by blending coconut milk with tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango, and banana. Add ice and coconut rum to make it a cocktail.
--If using canned coconut milk, skim the cream from the top and use as a whipped cream substitute for puddings and desserts.

Jelly Meat:
--Make homemade coconut milk from the meat with simple cheesecloth: gently blend coconut meat with water until slightly chunky (not until smooth) and squeeze through the cheesecloth. Transfer to a glass jar and keep in the fridge. Use within three days, as it’s highly perishable.
--Make a tropical pudding by blending the jelly meat with mango pulp. Add coconut water and leave to set in the fridge for a few hours. 

Fresh or Dried Meat
--Grate the meat against a fine grater to make shredded coconut flakes.
--Make coconut sambol by mixing finely shaved coconut meat with lemon juice, finely diced red onion, and chili powder. Serve the sambol alongside appams, curries, and chutneys.
--Add meat flakes to any vegetable fry to impart a rich, buttery taste to the dish.
--Make macaroons by mixing sugar, coconut milk, vanilla extract, date paste or jaggery, and salt. Add shredded coconut. Thicken with flour and mix the ingredients with the hands. It’s possible to eat these raw, or, bake on a low temperature for 10 minutes. Check on the macaroons periodically, as they’re easy to burn.
--Fold coconut flakes in cookie recipes, or sprinkle atop cream pies and tofu-based cheesecakes. Adding to baked goods will increase the richness and chewiness of the dessert.
*Note: do not pack coconut when measuring for recipes.

Coconut Oil
--Salad dressings: mix with vinegar, sesame seeds, shallots, soy sauce and peanut butter. Pour over Asian salads, such as those including cashews, peanuts, mandarins, mangos, shredded papaya or mango, grated carrots, bell peppers, basil, etc.
--Stir fries: coconut oil has one of the highest heat tolerance of any oil, and imparts a strong, nutty flavor on the ingredients. Use for sautéing tofu or vegetables in any Asian stir-fry recipe.

--Coconut oil is a fantastic base for lotion, deodorant, toothpaste, and body butter. To make all-natural, highly effective deodorant, mix baking soda and arrowroot powder. Add coconut oil until a thick paste forms. Store in a small glass container, and apply topically with the fingertip. Some also engage in the ancient Ayurvedic technique of oil pulling to improve dental health: swish oil in the mouth for 10 minutes, and then spit.

Flavor Complements
Fruits: Ambarella, avocado, banana, banana flower, baobab, breadfruit, Buddha’s hand, bullock’s heart, cacao, camachile, carambola, cashew apple, cattley guava, cempedak, citron, cochin goraka, custard apple, date, dragon fruit, elephant apple, feijoa, garcinia cambogia, giant granadilla, guava, jackfruit, ker, kiwi, kokum, lakoocha, lemon, lime, lychee, mango, mangosteen, monstera deliciosa, musk melon, nugu, orange, papaya, passion fruit, pineapple, plantain, pomelo, rambutan, sour orange, soursop, watermelon

Vegetables: Banana stem, banana flower, bitter gourd, breadfruit, bamboo shoots, elephant foot yam, bok choy, bottle gourd, bell pepper, carrot, cassava, cauliflower, chayote, drumstick, eggplant, green eggplant, green mango, jicama, okra, lotus stem, mango ginger, kohlrabi, onion, raw papaya, ridge gourd, sweet potato, yam

Herbs, spices, and oil: macadamia nut, cashew, almond, hazelnut, coconut milk, honey, sugar, jaggery, maple syrup, chai, saffron, cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa, lemon juice, lime juice, orange juice, tropical fruit juice, citrus zest, basil, mint, parsley, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, ginger, garlic, onion, soy sauce, sesame, miso, wasabi, mustard

Kerala's cuisine is a feast of coconut-centric food
Random Facts:
To settle the debate, “is coconut a nut or fruit?” The answer is… fruit! Of course, all of the coconut is not the fruit: there’s actually the palm, the seed, AND the fruit. But it’s definitely not a nut.

Scientific Name:
Cocos nucifera

Other Names:
Nariyal (Hindi)
Yubi (Manipuri)
Tennai (Tamil)
Thengu (Malayalam)
Kobbari chettu (Telegu)
Narlu (Konkani)

Naral, shriphal (Marathi)


  1. I about massacred my fingers off the other month trying to open a coconut. Where was this awesome post when I needed it??! :) xo

    1. Hah, totally get it--coconuts still intimidate me, and I completely take for granted the amazing powers of the guys here with their giant Aladin-type knives to do the heavy lifting for a mere 70 cents per giant coconut. Now I just need to find someone to cut my pumpkins... those are a real pain, too!