Coconut Groves and Coconut Dreams

Going for the Coconuts in Haiti
Going for the Coconuts in Haiti (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

“Columbus had no idea, of course, of the almost infinite ramifications of his voyages on the way future people would eat.”

‑‑Raymond Sokolov‑‑

Why We Eat What We Eat(1991)

Trying to get the meat out of a coconut is like trying to pull a tooth without Novocain, a very painful process. I know—I tried to do the locavore thing once with a casual piña colada, wrestling with a coconut from my yard and nearly decapitating myself with a machete. As they say, it’s a tough nut to crack.

But what a history hath the coconut.

In 1280, Marco Polo called them “pharaoh’s nuts.” Today, scientists call their distribution “pantropic” and textbooks give their scientific name as Cocos nucifera. The name is based in part on a Portuguese word for “monkey,” the face of which the three “eyes” of the coconuts apparently resemble. Coconut trees, numbered at 600 million the world over, play an indispensable role in the daily lives of over one‑third of the world’s people. Apart from its oily sweet‑tasting nuts, the coconut tree provides drink, containers, clothing, and shelter.

With their Asian origins shrouded in antiquity, coconuts migrated to pharaonic Egypt and spread, via Arab traders, to the African tropics, most particularly West Africa. From West Africa, in the holds of post‑Columbian Spanish and Portuguese slave ships, side by side with enslaved Africans, coconuts wended their way to the New World. Coconuts adapted easily to the American tropics, where the temperature never falls below 68 degrees F and rainfall of 50‑70‑inches per year ensures ample circulating ground water. Once coconuts sprout and root, it takes 5‑7 years for a tree to bear fruit. Like banana plants, coconut trees bear fruit constantly throughout the year and may produce up to 500 nuts per tree per year.

Although conditions favoring the rooting of coconuts existed in many locations, coconuts rule culinarily in only two major areas in the Americas: (1) the northern coast of Colombia, near Cartagena and (2) in the Bahia area of Brazil. Other isolated areas, such as the north coast of Honduras, demonstrate some usage of coconut in cooking. Theory has it that the slave populations of those areas came from parts of West Africa where coconut cookery evolved to the level of  haute cuisine.

African (and Asian) cooks used coconuts in an infinite number of ways, making sauces, stews, desserts, breads, marinades, and scores of other delicacies. In Thailand, babies’ first food was (and is) “coconut jelly,” the immature meat of the newly‑formed coconut. In modern‑day West Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America, coconuts continue to be the “staff of life” to untold numbers of people. Cooks no longer have to wrestle for hours with unhusked coconuts, fighting through tough layers to get at the sweet meat. Dried coconut, both sweetened and non‑sweetened, and cans of cream of coconut abound in most ordinary U.S. supermarkets.

Alex Masters)
Coconut (Photo credit: Alex Masters)

As you try recipes ranging from “Coconut Crab Dip” to “Coconut Pudding” to “Adobo with Chicken and Pork,” you may find a permanent place for more and more coconut‑based recipes in your recipe file.

Columbus did indeed wrought more than he thought.


Makes about 4 cups

2 cups sour cream

2 t. curry powder

4 green onions, chopped

Coarsely ground black pepper to taste

Salt to taste

1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut

1/2 pound cooked flaked crabmeat

1. Mix all ingredients in a glass bowl. Chill at least 3‑4 hours.

2. Serve with crackers, chips, shrimp chips, a raw vegetable platter, or fried pita wedges.


Serves 6‑8

Note: The adobo method of cooking derives from a Spanish method of cooking in wine. The Spanish took this method with them to the Philippines in 1571 and the Filipinos changed it to fit their palates.

1 roasting chicken, cut into serving pieces

2 pounds boneless pork, cut into 2‑inch cubes

2 cups water

3/4 cup vinegar

1 whole head of garlic, peeled and crushed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 cups thick coconut cream

Cilantro leaves for garnish

1. Mix first 6 ingredients in a large non‑aluminum saucepan. Simmer until meats are tender (about 2 hours). Leave lid slightly ajar.

2. Thicken cream in a skillet over low heat. Stir into meats and cook for 5 more minutes.

3. Serve adobo with rice.


Makes about 4 cups

3/4 cup sugar

5 T. cornstarch

Pinch salt

3 cups skim milk

2 eggs, slightly beaten

1/2 stick butter (4 T.)

1 T. vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups shredded coconut

Slivers of lime peel for garnish

1. Mix cornstarch, salt, and sugar together in a medium saucepan. Slowly pour in the milk and mix well. Over low heat and stirring constantly, cook mixture until it boils and is thickened. Take about 1 cup of the hot mixture, stir into the eggs, and then stir the eggs into the hot mixture off the heat. Cook for another 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

2. Stir in the butter, vanilla, and coconut. Pour pudding into custard cups or other serving dishes. Cover with plastic wrap (wrap should touch pudding). Chill until serving time. Garnish with feathery slivers of lime peel.


Coconut “meat” is rich in saturated fat and, hence, calories. A 1 cup portion of dried sweetened coconut contains 470 calories, while 1 cup of freshly prepared coconut has 285 calories. Coconut also contains a goodly amount of potassium.

© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen


  1. I spent about two weeks in Tonga about 10 years ago and got to watch the locals scaping the coconut out of the shells. They sat on a timber bench seat, like being on a horse, legs either side, and had a piece of metal with a grater/prong set up on it to scrape the shells against. It was really interesting to see.

    Being closish to Asia, we get plenty of coconut inspired dishes such as Malaysian laksa and Thai green curry. I just remembered coconut jelly/pudding that I’ve eaten at yum cha restaurants. Mmm, hungry now.


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