By Dhani Irwanto, 15 July 2015
Plato said in Critias Section 115b: “… and the fruits having a hard rind, affording drinks and meats and ointments …”
Coconut (Cocos nucifera) provides a nutritious source of meat, juice, milk, and oil that has fed and nourished populations around the world for generations. On many islands coconut is a staple in the diet and provides the majority of the food eaten. Nearly one third of the world’s population depends on coconut to some degree for their food and their economy. Among these cultures the coconut has a long and respected history.
Coconut is highly nutritious and rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It is classified as a “functional food” because it provides many health benefits beyond its nutritional content. Coconut oil is of special interest because it possesses healing properties far beyond that of any other dietary oil and is extensively used in traditional medicine among Asian and Pacific populations. Pacific islanders consider coconut oil to be the cure for all illness. The coconut palm is so highly valued by them as both a source of food and medicine that it is called “the tree of life”. Only recently has modern medical science unlocked the secrets to coconut’s amazing healing powers.
Coconut oil is edible oil that has been consumed in tropical places for thousands of years. Studies done on native diets high in coconut oil consumption show that these populations are generally in good health, and don’t suffer as much from many of the modern diseases of western nations where coconut oil is seldom consumed anymore. Coconut oil is an excellent massage oil and smoothener for the skin. In the tropical parts of the world, natives commonly spread coconut oil on their skin, as they believe that it protects from the sun’s harmful rays. So this natural oil, without any chemical or additives, can protect the skin in some of the hottest and sunniest places on earth better than the processed and artificial sun creams.
The nutrient-rich coconut sap comes right out of the inflorescence of the tree is naturally abundant in 17 amino acids (the building blocks of protein), broad-spectrum B vitamins (especially rich in inositol, known for its effectiveness on depression, high cholesterol, inflammation, and diabetes), vitamin C, minerals (high in potassium, essential for electrolyte balance, regulating high blood pressure, and sugar metabolism), as well as FOS (fructooligosaccharide, a prebiotic that promotes digestive health). Coconut tree sap produces a multitude of delicious products, including coconut vinegar, coconut amino seasoning sauce, coconut nectar, coconut sugar and coconut alcoholic beverage, all made through raw methods of either aging the sap for up to 1 year, or evaporating it at low temperature after it is collected.
Coconut sugar is produced by tapping the sap from the tree and boiling it down to produce syrup, which is then sold as is, or allowed to crystallize into various shapes and sizes. Coconut sugar is known in different names, in Indonesia as gula merah or gula jawa (Javanese sugar), Myanmar as htanyet, Cambodia as skor tnot, the Philippines as pakaskas, Malaysia as gula anau, Laos and Thailand as nam tan pip and Vietnam as đường thốt nốt.
Coconut milk is a very popular food ingredient used in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Southern China and the Caribbean. Traditionally, coconut milk is acquired through the grating of a brown coconut, mixing the resulting substance with a small amount of water to dissolve the fat present in the grated meat. The squeezed coconut meat is then soaked in water and squeezed further to produce thin coconut milk. Thick milk is mainly used to make desserts as well as rich and dry sauces. Thin milk is used for soups and general cooking. Unlike cow’s milk, coconut milk is lactose free so can be used as a milk substitute by those with lactose intolerance. It is a popular choice with vegans and makes a great base for smoothies, milkshakes or as a dairy alternative in baking.
Coconut water is the watery liquid that usually comes from the young, still immature green coconut, although mature coconuts also have coconut water. Coconut water is high in many vitamins and minerals, especially potassium. Because it contains electrolytes, it is considered one of the best natural rehydrating drinks in the tropics. The still jelly-like coconut meat is often added to coconut water to make a tropical drink. Coconut water has received a great deal of attention for it’s perceived health benefits, and is an important treatment for acute diarrhoea in the developing world. Research suggests the clear liquid has the same electrolyte balance found in isotonic drinks, proving useful for rehydration or after long periods of intensive exercise.
Coconut vinegar is similar to other fermented vinegars such as apple cider and balsamic vinegars. It can either be made with coconut water or from the sap of the coconut tree, left in the open air to ferment, where it eventually turns into a vinegar. Coconut vinegar is a staple condiment in Southeast Asia, and is also used in some regions of India. Coconut vinegar is white and cloudy with a very pungent acidic taste and a hint of yeast. As with apple cider vinegar, coconut vinegar includes the “mother”, or culture of organisms that caused the fermentation. Coconut vinegar is a food appropriate for diabetic patients, as it is very low on the glycemic index, coming in at only 35 on the scale.
Indonesian and Malaysian tuak or lambanóg in the Philippines is a distilled alcoholic drink made from fermented sap of coconut flowers. The clear distillate may be blended, aged in wooden barrels, or repeatedly distilled and filtered depending upon the taste and color objectives of the manufacturer.
DNA analysis of more than 1,300 coconuts from around the world reveals that the coconut was brought under cultivation in two separate locations, one in the Pacific basin and the other in the Indian Ocean basin (Baudouin et al, 2008; Gunn et al, 2011). What’s more, coconut genetics also preserve a record of prehistoric trade routes and of the colonization of the Americas. In the Pacific, coconuts were likely first cultivated in island Southeast Asia, meaning the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and perhaps the continent as well. In the Indian Ocean the likely center of cultivation was the southern periphery of India, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and the Laccadives. The Pacific coconuts were introduced to the Indian Ocean a couple of thousand years ago by ancient Austronesians establishing trade routes connecting Southeast Asia to Madagascar and coastal east Africa.
Luc Baudouin and Patricia Lebrun, Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) DNA studies support the hypothesis of an ancient Austronesian migration from Southeast Asia to America, 2008. Springer Link, March 2009, Volume 56, Issue 2, pp 257-262.
Bee F. Gunn, Luc Baudouin and Kenneth M. Olsen, Independent Origins of Cultivated Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) in the Old World Tropics, 2011. PLoS ONE 6(6): e21143. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021143.
Jones TL, Storey AA, Matisoo-Smith EA and Ramirez-Aliaga JM, Polynesians in America: pre-Columbian contacts with the New World, 2011. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Luc Baudouin, Bee F. Gunn and Kenneth M. Olsen, The presence of coconut in southern Panama in pre-Columbian times: clearing up the confusion, 2013. Annals of Botany: doi:10.1093/aob/mct244.