Coconut Cracks The Code For A Tasty Tropical Fruit

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Perhaps you have enjoyed shredded coconut through the years in cookies or other desserts.  But, did you know this sweet treat can be enjoyed in so many other ways? Coconut is nutritious as well as delicious. Take a look at some of the delightful surprises this fruit, or nut if you wish, has for you.

What is it?

Coconuts are a member of the palm tree family, and grow in tropical climates closer to the equator, in both hemispheres of the world. They are cultivated in over 80 countries within these regions. Coconuts have several layers, and the exterior shell is a hard, fiber-like membrane that requires a sharp knife and a little work to crack.

This fruit is officially classified as a fibrous one-seeded drupe.  Now, most people (unless you're a botanist) have never heard of a “drupe.”  A drupe is a fruit that has what we would call a “pit” which is nothing more than a hard cover that encloses the seed, like a peach or an olive.  Drupes, including coconuts, have three layers which we must navigate through to enjoy what the coconut has to offer.

History

The origin of the coconut seems to be debated a bit. One palm specialist has suggested that the coconut most likely came from the Indian Archipelago or Polynesia, using one argument that there are more varieties of coconut palms in the Eastern hemisphere than in the Americas.  Other scientists argue that the coconut origins can be traced to the Americas and migrated westward across the Pacific. 

Portugal and Spain are the two countries that first documented seeing coconuts during the mid 16th century, describing them as resembling the faces of monkeys. Although most often associated with the Pacific islands and southern Asia in movies, art, and historical depictions,   coconuts do grow in extreme southern areas of Florida, California, Hawaii, and the Caribbean.

Health Benefits

Coconut has been credited with everything from improving hair and skin quality to easing symptoms of menopause, diarrhea, and even helping wounds heal faster. Coconut's most significant quality is to aid digestion and maintain a healthy pH balance in the intestines and lessen the amount of toxin build-up.

One of the healthiest oils you can consume is coconut oil, having much less trans fat, resulting in better benefits from the Omega-3 fatty acids the oil contains.  Even though the plant is high in saturated fat, it is said to help lower cholesterol and the risk for heart disease, as well as provide a natural energy boost and help people maintain a healthy body weight.

It is also believed that coconut contains lauric acid, which helps the immune system by fighting off viral, fungal, and bacterial agents in the body. Coconut milk is another way to enjoy the health benefits of this tropical treat. Many people have found the benefits of switching from other milks to coconut milk for their own particular health needs. 

Fun Facts

Some countries, Malaysia and Thailand for example, train macaque monkeys to harvest coconuts much faster than humans can. In India, this plant is sacred, and is used in ceremonies as a sign of great respect for its healing qualities and its ability to reduce stress and eliminate toxins from the body. 

Coconuts are referred to as the “tree of life” because every bit of the fruit is used to produce a wealth of products such as drink, food, fiber, fuel, utensils, musical instruments, and much more.  As a matter of fact, coconut water was used successfully during World War II and Vietnam as a substitute intravenous solution due to wartime shortages.

How to Eat

If you are lucky enough to get a real whole coconut, you may think it's a “touch nut to crack” but it's a lot easier than you might think once you know how.  Look for the three dots resembling a face. Take a sharp object, like a meat thermometer or screwdriver, and poke the holes until you find the soft one, then push it all the way in and drain the water into a glass; taste to make sure it's sweet (not oily or sour, which then you would throw the whole thing out.)  If the liquid is sweet, proceed to crack the nut by first putting in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes.  When you remove it, you'll see the hard shell has cracked.  Get out a hammer and smack the coconut until it splits open.  Remove the shell and peel away the brown skin attached to the white meat with a vegetable peeler.  You're ready to enjoy!

The coconut meat can be shredded, shaved, or diced and is most often thought of in desserts like macaroons, cookies, pies, and cupcakes.  But, don't stop there!  Coconut is a wonderful addition to many main dishes and sides, as well.  Add shredded coconut to breading to coat shrimp, for instance. Shred, shave, or grate fresh coconut to dress up many types of salads, including green salads, rice, and quinoa. The bulk of recipes for this tropical plant are the many delicious baked desserts and sweet breads, but use your imagination to expand your use of coconut.

The uses for coconut milk are growing in popularity every day.  Combine the milk with ingredients like raisins, cranberries, brown sugar, and cinnamon to create a tasty basmati rice or brown rice pudding recipe.  For meat, chicken, or other main dishes, make a spicy curry with coconut cream or milk. Turn to any Thai recipe for ways to use up your coconut milk, whether poured right from the coconut itself or purchased as processed milk.

Whether you purchase a fresh coconut or processed products made from this tropical plant, you can add a bit of healthy sweetness to your diet by exploring the many recipes for this unique fruit, nut, or whatever you call it. With a little creativity, you'll find lots of new ways to use this “tough nut” and be happy you finally cracked the coconut code!