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Cooking With Coconut

Kate Hamilton August 2006 issue of Skin Inc. magazine

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In Sanskrit, it’s called kalpa vriksha, which means “the tree that provides all the necessities of life,” and in Malay, pokok seribu guna describes “the tree of a thousand uses.” In the Philippines, it is called simply “the tree of life.” Valued by cultures throughout the world, the coconut palm is one of the most useful and economically valuable trees because every part can be used to produce a number of products. From the white fleshy piece of the seed utilized in cooking to the outer fibrous husk used for making ropes and mats, more than 10 million families in 90 countries depend on this hearty crop for food and income.


Rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, the coconut is classified as a functional food by dietitians due to its many healthful benefits. A number of ailments can be treated with coconut, including asthma, burns, fever, toothaches and ulcers, and modern medicine confirms its range of cures. Coconut oil, especially, is known as being the healthiest oil on Earth, composed primarily of medium-chain fatty acids recommended by physicians. In fact, the coconut, along with the olive, are the earliest recorded sources of vegetable oil.

To open a coconut, first remove the outer husk, if it has not been removed already. Pierce two of the three eyes, and drain the juice. Coconuts have a natural fracture point and can be opened by hitting them with the flat edge of a heavy knife, or by using a flathead screwdriver and a hammer. Work around the coconut until the crack splits the entire fruit.

In the kitchen

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Coconut Quick Facts

  • Because the three indentations on the furry fruit resemble the face of a monkey, early Spanish explorers called it coco, or “monkey face.”
  • The origin of this plant is subject to debate. However, coconut fossils have been traced to New Zealand as far back as 15 million years ago, and also have been recovered in Rajasthan and Maharashtra, India.
  • During World War II, coconut milk was used as a substitute for cow’s milk.
  • A coconut is the largest known seed in the world.
  • Trained monkeys are used in some areas of the world to harvest coconuts. Training schools still exist in Thailand, and competitions are held to determine the fastest harvester.
  • At one time, Pacific Islanders believed that the world was a large coconut.

Recipe: Herbed Chicken Coconut Soup with Sliced Galangal (Tom Kha Gai)

Makes 4 servings

2 cups vegetable stock

1 cup coconut milk

3 tablespoons galangal, peeled and finely julienne sliced

3 tablespoons lemongrass, sliced finely diagonally

2 kaffir lime leaves, shredded and sliced

3 pieces birdseye chili, pressed

1 chicken breast, sliced into bite-size pieces

1 ounce oyster mushrooms, peeled or trimmed

1 ounce straw mushrooms, peeled and cut into wedges

1⁄2 ounce cherry tomatoes, halved

4 tablespoons miso paste

2 tablespoons lime juice

1 tablespoon red chili, seeded and sliced diagonally

a tip of a coriander leaf

1. In a soup pan, bring vegetable stock and coconut milk to a boil.

2. Add galangal, lemongrass, kafir lime leaves and birdseye chili, and simmer for several minutes.

3. Add chicken, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes, and cook for 4–5 minutes, until well done. Avoid overcooking, as chicken will become tough.

4. Remove from heat, and season with miso paste and lime juice.

5. To serve, garnish with red chili, kaffir lime leaves and coriander leaf tip.

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