Coconut is called the tree of life because for thousands of years it has provided people with food and drink, materials for housing, fuel and medicine. One of the most important cultivated trees in the world, Coconut walnut from the palm family Palmaceae is currently present in all tropical regions of the planet and is well-deservedly popular with gourmets and industrial producers.
However, the origin of the coconut palm is shrouded in mystery and speculation. Many scientists believe that it originated in the tropical islands of the Pacific Ocean, and from there it spread to other tropical regions of America, India, South Asia and Oceania. One legend links the origin of the coconut to Coconut Island, which is now part of Costa Rica’s world famous national park system.
Located hundreds of miles off the country’s Pacific coast, the island was visited by 14th-century explorers who found coconut forests that seemed both native and ancient.
Revered by ancient cultures, the coconut played a worthy role in religion, as well as in the nutrition and well-being of mankind.
In South Asia, coconuts are known as srifalaor “the fruit of the gods”, and symbolize usefulness, selfless service, prosperity and generosity.
Palm trees are considered the embodiment of the ancient Indian concept kalpavriksha – a tree that fulfills all desires.
We have found ways to use every part of this crop to our advantage: trunks for wood, leaves for straw, fibrous coconut husks as a base material for ropes and coconut mats, and nuts for food. Unripe green nuts contain coconut water, a powerful thirst quencher known locally as agua de pipa. The nut can be eaten fresh or dried (as dried coconut or coconut flakes) and is also available as blocks of coconut cream.
Valuable coconut oil is extracted from nutmeg and used in margarines, soaps and detergents, and in cooking.
Despite being high in saturated fat, every 100 grams of fresh coconut contains 3.2 grams of protein in addition to 36 grams of fat.
Dried coconut contains 5.6 grams of protein and 62 grams of fat, as well as some vital micronutrients. About 50% of coconut oil is lauric acid, one of the good fats.
Lauric acid, found in both breast milk and coconut oil, is a rare fatty acid in its monoglyceride form (monolaurin or ML) that supports a healthy metabolism and is being studied for its antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. It is also a good source of manganese, selenium, copper, iron, and dietary fiber.
From a culinary standpoint, coconut is present in the cuisines of many regions, especially Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, southern India, tropical Africa, and the Caribbean. Each culture has used the flesh and milk of coconut in a different way.
The coconut’s journey to the table is varied in forms and styles of preparation, from pastries, drinks, smoothies and desserts to more savory dishes such as soups, creams and sauces. Of course, the use of coconut milk in the hot and spicy curries of South Indian and Thai cuisines is unforgettable.
“Not shy” is one way to describe the presence of coconut milk in many Caribbean stews and dishes such as the famous Rondon, or “rundown”, a traditional Afro-Caribbean dish from the Caribbean province of Lemon. Rondon, usually prepared for a large company, is a seafood stew with local tubers such as yuca (cassava or cassava) and camote (a type of Caribbean sweet potato).
The stew is cooked over low heat and exquisitely seasoned with cinnamon, allspice, ginger, coffee and hot chili. The Caribbean version of curry, rondon, is a must when visiting the southern Caribbean beaches of Puerto Viejo and Cahuita.
Another example of the use of coconut is “rice and beans”, a delicious interpretation of Lemon. gallo pintomade with refreshing coconut milk and a symphony of spices and peppers. Accompanied regularly with baked chicken with coconut sauce, this is a staple of the Caribbean diet.
In other parts of Costa Rica, coconut is used in sweets and desserts. Looking for classic cockades or tartaras — delicious coconut-caramel crumb baked in dough — sold near bus stops and at busy intersections. Another typical dessert cajetas de cococandy made from coconut and brown sugar, similar to a cockade but more chewy.
Agua de pipa is usually sold wherever it is hot. Icy young coconuts are decapitated to expose a hole that appears to have been made for a straw. Enjoy a pure and delicious natural electrolyte energy booster with no added sugar, sodium or artificial colors. It even makes a good mixer for other mixes.
In this column, I offer a recipe for rice and beans with a spicy coconut sauce, in honor of the coconut flavor used in Caribbean cuisine. ¡Buen Provecho!
Caribbean Rice with Beans and Spicy Coconut Sauce
rice and beans
- 3 cups cooked cold white rice
- 1 cup boiled red or black beans
- 1 small onion, minced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 inch piece fresh ginger, grated
- 1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
- 1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 cups coconut milk
- 2 tsp spicy sauce
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp allspice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
In a wide skillet over medium heat, sauté onion and pepper in oil for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add garlic and ginger and sauté for one minute. Add remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Adjust tastes and reserve.
- 1 1/2 cups coconut milk
- 1 tsp curry powder
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp corn starch
Bring coconut milk to a boil in a saucepan. Add curry, sugar, soy sauce and lemon juice and simmer for two minutes. In a bowl, mix together the cornstarch and 1/4 cup water until no lumps exist. Add to the coconut curry mixture and whisk until the sauce thickens. To serve, make a pillow of hot rice and beans and pour sauce on top.
Makes five servings.