Eating In: Bounty hunting

The fairground coconut isn't worthy of the name, says Michael Bateman. The real thing provides delicious cooling drinks, tempers the fire of spicy dishes and transforms the simplest food

IN A STRING of countries around the tropics, from Africa to India and from the Far East to the Caribbean, the coconut is an essential ingredient in the kitchen. The cream and milk extracted from the flesh tempers the heat of spicy dishes, such as Malaysian noodle laksas and Bengali fish curries, and coconut enriches many a dish of Caribbean rice.

But nowhere is the coconut so appreciated as in Brazil. Here it can be found in savouries such as moquecas, spicy fish stews, and puddings such as quindim, a rich custard. It is used to sweeten breakfast breads as well as the preserves served with them, such as coconut and pumpkin cocada; it lifts milk shakes and disguises the mule kick of a white rum batida, one of many cocktails made with the juices of exotic fruits.

The coconut is especially important in Salvador, in the north-eastern province of Bahia, the home of descendants of the four million African slaves who were brought to work the sugar plantations.

In Bahia, coconut is blended with groundnuts, chilli and lime juice to make a sauce, vatap, which is served with prawns, fish or as an accompaniment to deep-fried bean cakes such as the Middle Eastern falafel, which they call acaraje. In the beautiful city of Salvador (with its 365 churches built by the Portuguese 400 years ago), the splendidly turbanned female street-vendors fry these bean cakes on their roadside stalls in bubbling pans of dende (palm) oil, and sell trays of appetising coconutty cakes.

Their very existence is an early example of Fusion cooking. The Portuguese nuns who joined the first colonisers brought with them their skills at making cakes (little sweetmeats of egg yolk, sugar and almonds), which they, in turn, had learnt from the Moors during the Arab occupation of southern Spain. There being no almonds growing in tropical climes, the African cooks substituted coconut. These little cakes have evocative names such as Saudades (which means longings) and Maiden's Sighs or Thighs or, more comically, Mother-in-Law's Eyes.

If the coconut has a place in British culture, it's more in the fairground than in the kitchen. And no wonder we find them so disappointing: these hard, hairy balls, when finally cracked or pierced, often contain no more than a squirt of brackish liquid, if any at all, and the flesh can be tough and stale.

It is also familiar in its desiccated form, generously scattered on cakes at the local baker's and hardly improving their taste. The Australian national teatime treasure, the Lamington (named after a 19th-century Governor- General of Queensland) is one such - a square of cake dipped in chocolate icing and dredged in desiccated coconut.

It is unfortunate that the increasing use of coconut in this country had to be in fruit and nut muesli. It provides cheap bulk - it's a lot cheaper than almonds and hazelnuts - but the snag is that all nuts contain oil and, when removed from their shells and chopped, the nut oil is exposed to the air, oxidises and becomes rancid, tasting bitter.

The coconut in particular develops an alkaline, soapy flavour. This may not be surprising, since oil from the coconut's sister, the palm nut, is used to make soap.

All these are cruel distortions of the real coconut, which has to be enjoyed when truly fresh. You can't go anywhere near a beach in Brazil without encountering beach boys (usually standing in the shade of coconut palms) selling young green coconuts, which provide the ultimate cooling drink. Held in the palm of a hand, the coconuts are decapitated with the swing of a machete and offered to you with a straw.

This refreshing juice (known as gua de coco) is not in fact the liquid used by cooks, though it is sometimes added to a dish. Coconut milk and coconut cream specifically refer to liquids pressed from grated coconut flesh which has been soaked in hot water. The first pressing is thicker (the cream) and the second pressing more watery (the milk).

In Britain, we can buy coconut milk in so many forms that there is no need for this hard labour. The best is probably the canned version from Sri Lanka and Thailand. You can also buy waxy blocks of dried coconut cream from Asian shops and grate it into dishes, or improvise by pouring hot water on to desiccated coconut, and squeezing it through a fine sieve or cloth.

The easy, lazy way is to use instant powdered coconut milk (marketed by Nestle), which is now easy to get hold of. I sometimes do it the hard way, but that's because I learnt it while researching a book about Brazilian cooking (see below).

A coconut can be a brute to deal with, but the tool box will provide a hammer and a screwdriver to enable you to pierce the three eyes in the coconut base to pour off the coconut water. To get at the flesh, crack the shell with the hammer. It is even easier to deal with if you bake the cracked shell in a hot oven for 20 minutes.

'Street Cafe Brazil' by Michael Bateman, Conran Octopus pounds 12.99, is published next week.

BAHIAN FISH IN COCONUT MILK

In Brazil, fish is almost always marinated before cooking.

Serves 4

1 kg/2lb 2oz firm white fish, such as swordfish, cut into 4 steaks or smaller pieces

I onion, diced small

2 tomatoes, finely-sliced, cross-wise

2 green peppers, de-seeded and finely-sliced, cross-wise

150ml/14 pint coconut milk, from a can

I tablespoon tomato paste

15ml/12 fl oz olive oil

For the marinade

juice of 2 limes

2 sprigs of coriander, chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped

salt

Optional: 1 chilli, finely sliced

Put the fish in a bowl and mix with the marinade. Leave for 30 minutes. Transfer the fish to a large pan, and cover with onions, green peppers, tomatoes and coconut cream, into which the tomato paste has been dissolved. Add the olive oil and leave to sit for 15 minutes, allowing the fish to absorb the flavours.

To cook, simmer over a low heat for 25 minutes.

Cooked in this way, the fish becomes very firm. If tender fish is preferred, remove fish from pan just before cooking the remaining ingredients. Simmer these for 20 minutes, then add the fish to cook for 10 minutes.

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