SCIENTIFIC NAME: Cocos nucifera
FAMILY: Arecaceae

This booklet on Coconut is the third of a series on the edible plants of the Hawaiian Islands to be published by Na Lima Kokua, the Helping Hands of the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden. The Coconut Palm is one of the tropics' most useful ornamental plants with its crown of feathery leaves and clusters of huge, green, triangular nuts hanging invitingly beneath. It can beautify any garden with its attractive foliage and fruit and the latter can be made into many interesting dishes for all courses in a meal. The Coconut has many other ethnobotanical uses and was once regarded as the 'provider of the island people', producing a cool liquid for drinking, the white nut-meat for food and its foliage for shelter. Some have called it the single most versatile and useful tree in the world.

Our group is indebted to the following for recipes that appear in this booklet: these include Gwen Freeman, Winona Sears, Maile Yardley through her cookbook, Hawaii Cooks, Dora Jane Cole and Juliet Wichman through their cookbook, Early Kauai Hospitality, the compilers of Fruits of Hawaii, Sunset Magazine and Gourmet Magazine.

The coconut has often been described as the single most useful tree in the world and in many parts of the tropics it still plays an important role in everyday life. Although the fruit is the most economically important part of the plant, the stem, leaves, and inflorescences also have innumerable uses. This is true not only in Hawaii and Polynesia in general, but throughout the world.

It is uncertain as to the coconut's place of origin, but many believe this to be in tropical Melanesia or the Old World. Man brought it into cultivation early in his development and it quickly became an important part of his subsistence. Indeed, in Indonesia, it is said to have as many uses as days in the year.

The scientific name for the coconut is Cocos nucifera and the word 'Cocos' and coconut are derived from the Portuguese for 'monkey's face'. The latter refers to the three 'eyes' in the shell, which are supposed to resemble the face of a monkey.

To most people the coconut is thought of as a tall, slender, leaning tree with a graceful cluster of large feather-like leaves at its crown. However, there are also short and medium-growing varieties that are valued for their ease of harvesting and unique fruit characteristics. A collection of all these types is now growing at the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden and has been described in an article in the Garden's Bulletin Volume VIII:33-39 in 1978.

Upon germination the young seedling forms a swollen base and then a slender trunk, which can reach a height of 100 feet. Fruiting usually begins sometime after the fifth year and continues throughout the tree's life. The large clusters of flowers found among the fronds contain both male and female flowers and these may mature at different times or can overlap in their development, which is commonly the case with the dwarf and medium height varieties, and in the latter instances the plants are most often self-pollinated. After pollination the nuts take about a year to develop.

Fruit production varies considerably with each variety, but about 50-100 nuts per year is considered a good yield. Each individual fruit takes about 9-12 months to mature, at which time it can be 12-18" long and 6-8" in diameter. The thick, fibrous husk encloses a single, hard nut or shell, which is the familiar 'coconut' of commerce. Within the nut can be found a small insignificant embryo, white 'meat' and liquid endosperm. The liquid from a not-too-young fruit can form a refreshing, pure drink in parts of the world where the water supply may be questionable.

Coconuts are propagated by seed, with mature ones being often planted in a shallow hole, which is slowly filled as the swollen base develops. In other instances the seeds can be shallowly planted in close rows in a nursery with their flat side down. They can later be transplanted to the field at a spacing of about 25-35 feet. Fortunately the lethal-yellow disease, so destructive in some parts of the world, is not present in Hawaii and other islands of the Pacific. The importation of coconut seeds, as well as seeds of other palms from certain parts of the world, is therefore prohibited in order to insure the health of our plants.

As noted earlier the entire plant has innumerable uses. The tree, aside from its beauty, is important in erosion control and can act as a windbreak. In Malaysia and S.E. Asia the roots are used medicinally, and throughout the tropics the trunks are of some importance for home-construction, spear shafts, lances, and in Hawaii they were used for small canoes. The swollen base of the trunk, when hollowed, formed the basic structure of large hula drums here in Hawaii or they were used as food storage containers.

In many parts of the world, the very young leaves are used in many forms of decorations and in some places a string of leaves across a path indicates some form of taboo and that one should not enter the area. In Hawaii the heavy base of the leaves is used for beating or pounding the banks of taro beds. Whole leaves are also used for thatching, fence building, mats and baskets. Hats are also made from the leaves, but this was not the case in Hawaii in pre-Captain Cook times.

The fibrous sheath at the base of the leaf served as a food- or bait-wrapping material, and these sheaths could also be used as a wrapper when moving young plants, much as burlap is used today.

The midribs of leaflets, when tied together, form an excellent broom and the whole leaflets themselves are plaited into fans or formed into balls for children to play with. The leaflet midribs could also serve as the rods or holders for a string of kukui nuts to form a candle and they could also be used to string leis or make shrimp snares. Corks can be cut from the large midrib of the whole leaf and the end of the leaf (last 3-4 feet) can serve to scare fish out from under coral ledges.

The large spathe or bract which surrounds the cluster of flowers before it opens is used as a container for a gift or lei and can be turned into strips for binding or wrapping. In some parts of the world the whole young inflorescence is bound, bruised with a mallet and the tip cut off. The sugary exudate is then collected each day for a considerable period. This extract can be boiled down immediately for sugar or allowed to ferment to form palm wine 'toddy' or even vinegar. Upon distillation, a strong spirit or whiskey can be produced and this is often known under the Ceylonese name of 'arrack'.

This is the single most important part of the plant and can for the sake of discussion be divided into four parts: husks, shell or nut, coconut water and coconut meat. The husk varies considerably in size and the fibers which fill up the bulk of the space make excellent cordage. This is often known as coir. Fibers from nearly, but not fully, mature nuts make the best cordage. which is quite resistant to salt water. Beside their use for coir, the fibers can be formed into mats and tannin can also be extracted from them for use in the treatment of animal hides. In many places the husks are a prime source of fuel for cooking.

The nut or shell contains three 'eyes', beneath one of which is the young embryo. When attempting to extract the water, one can more easily punch out the 'embryo eye', as compared to the other two. The shell, when cut in half, forms an excellent spoon, scoop, mug, or with a handle, a ladle. It can be cut into a comb and in Borneo it is cut into rings to be used as a charm. Buttons can also be cut out of the shell and in many places the shell is used for fuel.

In Hawaii and Polynesia the polished half-shells were covered with fish skin and used as small drums. Cut in half crosswise, the shells were for use by commoners; cut in half lengthwise the shells were used only by priests for medicine or religious ceremonies.

When very young, the water within the nut is astringent and not used; however, as the nut develops, it becomes better tasting and is then commonly drunk. Upon complete maturation, the liquid is again not as palatable and may be diuretic. Other uses for the water include medicine, vinegar preparation and in various dye processes.

The meat of the coconut changes with age and this is the portion of the fruit which is of greatest importance. The meat from the unripe shell is eaten cooked or uncooked and in Hawaii the latter type of preparation was often eaten with red salt and poi.*

As the meat matures, it changes from translucent to opaque and forms the white coconut meat most people are familiar with in cooking. This meat is rich in oil, which is extracted in various ways. The meat can be scraped out and grated or dried to form copra. The abundant oil is extracted by squeezing through cloth or with larger presses or other machinery. This liquid extract is the coconut 'milk' described for use in cooking. In commercial processes which extract a great deal of the 'milk', the remaining residue is used for animal feed or fuel.

Fresh grated coconut, or the meat from which excess 'milk' is not extracted, can be used in all forms of recipes, as described in this booklet. It can also be frozen for later use. The milk and meat are rich in oil, proteins and carbohydrates. The oil when purified has numerous uses in industry (e.g. soaps, shampoos, margarine, body oil, medicine, synthetic rubber, hydraulic brake fluids, plasticizers for safety glasses, etc.) These are just a few of the many uses of the coconut.

Preparation For Use
When selecting a coconut from the tree, ground or market, always give the nut a shake and take only those in which you can hear a good quantity of juice sloshing around. Many people who enjoy fresh coconut steer away from it thinking it is such a chore to remove the husk and the meat from the shell. This, however, need not be the case. Here is the best way we have found for opening a coconut and easily removing the meat.

This can be a task but the best way is to take an ordinary pick ax and drive the flattened end firmly into the ground. This leaves the pointed end sticking up for use. Grasp the ripe coconut by the two ends and drive it down on the sharp point. Twist the nut toward you and pry off a section of the husk. Turn the nut and repeat the process. In less then five minutes you will have the husk off in several pieces.

Removing meat
If you have husked your nut, just puncture the soft eyes and drain the liquid into a bowl to be used later. Put the drained nuts into a 350 degree F. oven and within an hour you will hear them cracking. Remove from oven and put under cold, running water. This causes the meat to shrink slightly and pull away from the shell and facilitates its easy removal from the shell in large pieces. It is then easier to shave good-sized strips with a potato peeler for baked chips. Larger pieces are also easier to grate.

If you prefer not to use the oven method, take the drained nut in one hand, or hold it on a solid base or the ground, and tap it with a hammer or any other such instrument around the nut's 'equator' or circumference, turning as you strike it. The nut will usually crack in half in two almost equal pieces. The meat can then be pried out with a heavy blade. If you are using the meat for chips, the brown skin need not be removed. It enhances the flavor of the chips when baked in the oven. For grating, the skin should be removed with a potato peeler.

In food preparation use both the water and the coconut meat at once, or freeze for later use. Grated coconut should be packed firmly to press out the air and sealed in airtight containers. Use a grater or whirl ½-inch cubes of coconut, about 1 cup at a time, in your blender or a food processor fitted with the shredding disk. Shred a few pieces at a time. For convenience, wrap grated coconut in ½ or 1 cup portions. One good, large coconut yields 3 to 4 cups.

It is suggested that fresh coconut meat and the milk made from fresh coconut, as called for in these recipes, be used as much as possible for best results. However, many recipes have been tested using the frozen milk and coconut to be found in your local markets and the packaged, grated coconut in the boxed cake section. All gave good results.

Drinking Nut
It is not necessary to husk a nut if it is to be used for drinking. A dark green, full-sized but immature nut without a trace of yellow should be plucked from the tree. The husk will be crisp and juicy at the stem end and can be sliced away with one stroke of a sharp machete. The nut can then sit on this flat surface. With a drill make a hole near the pointed end into the cavity. A straw or slender section of bamboo can be used for drinking the clear liquid inside the nut. This is the coconut water, and a prime drinking nut will contain nearly a quart of this delicious ready-made beverage. When your drinking nut is empty, split it open. Inside you will find a soft custard-like layer of meat that is best removed with a spoon, from which it gets its name 'spoon coconut'. It is most delicious.

Processing For Use
Coconut Milk: Grate the meat of one coconut with thin, brown skin removed (about 3 cups). Using the water taken from the nut, add fresh water to make 1 to 1½ cups, boil and pour over coconut. Let stand 30 minutes, mash, and squeeze well through two thicknesses of cheesecloth to extract all milk. Yields about 1½ cups. Refrigerate.

Using a blender and packaged coconut - Combine 1 1/3 cups packaged coconut and 1 1/3 cups regular milk in blender. Let stand in refrigerator for one hour. Blend at high speed for about one minute, strain through cheesecloth pressing out as much milk as possible. Makes about 1 cup and will be slightly sweeter than that made with fresh coconut. Refrigerate.

Coconut Cream: Place processed coconut milk in refrigerator overnight. A thick cream will rise to the top. Spoon off and use where cream is required in recipes.

Coconut Honey: For a mild coconut flavour, use 2 cups coconut milk. For a heavier flavour use 2 cups coconut cream. Add 1 cup honey and 1 cup sugar to milk or cream and stir over heat until sugar is dissolved. Boil rapidly, stirring to keep coconut from sticking to the bottom and burning. Cook to 222° on candy thermometer. It should not take longer than 5 minutes. If you do not have a thermometer, you can tell when the honey cooks down in the pot, and also you can test the mixture in cold water. It should not dissolve, but still should not be thick enough to form a soft ball. To cook honey, use a pan that will hold four times the volume of the original mixture, so that it will not boil over.

Coconut Sauce: To the fine pieces of grated coconut left after straining off the milk add 2 Tbl whipping cream or sour cream, 1 tsp sugar, ½ tsp vanilla and blend. Makes 1 cup. The fine coconut pieces left over after straining off the milk can also be toasted and used over ice cream or salads. Place on a baking sheet in 350°F oven for about 10 minutes or until golden brown.

*poi = a Hawaiian dish made of the root of taro baked, pounded, moistened and fermented.

Na Lima Kokua,
the Helping Hands of the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden

DATE: July 1985

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