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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?