Brainfood: A loverly bunch of coconuts

The coconut is hardly exotic. Cononut shies are now uncommon - children now vent their aggressions on video-games - but culinarily speaking, but the coconut and its by-products are readily available around the world. From Brazil to South-East Asi a and throughout the Pacific basin, the coconut is a vital part of the food culture. It is central to Indonesian, Malaysian, and Philippine cooking, and with good reason, for it yields oil, fibre and coconut water and milk, not to speak of fermentedvers ions of the latter which produce a potent toddy or wine. A coconut has three ages and three separate uses: young, middle-aged and mature. When young, the flesh is still soft enough to scoop, and the liquid within is still water slightly thickened by the soft flesh in formation; in middle age, the flesh is

firm enough for grating or flaking into strands, and the water is now milky; in maturity, it is oily (the flesh is pressed to extract the oil) and used, with water, sometimes to thicken cooking sauces. I got into this subject recently as the only professional cook in my family (there are at least six good amateur chefs and one still a sous-chef) served up his patented cocktail (King Creole - 1 shot dark rum, 2 oz coconut water, 1/4 fresh lime, 1 sp rig fresh mint, serve over ice.) The cocktail(s) brought up a flow of taste-reminiscences starting with why Proust made such a fuss about his madeleine when many other foodstuffs are infinitely more redolent. Answer: Proust hadn't wandered the beaches of

the world, from Pernambuco to the Ceylon shore to the coasts of West Africa. Had he, he might have made literature of the coconut. Coconut milk is best fresh, but coconut water is widely available. The Vietnamese currently export it via Malaysia, and you can find it, tinned, in most oriental food-shops. As readers know, I am not one for tinned or frozen products, but I make an e xception for Asiatic foods. Most of these are labour-intensive to produce, and save for the most refined palate used to the fresh stuff, such bottled or tinned products as Indian pickles and chutneys, the various sorts of freshly-packed curry-pastesand ingredients like dried mushrooms or coconut water, are so near to being the equivalent (and being more available than their complex ingredients) that I see no reason not to use them. For instance, should you, of a summer evening, want a delicious, mildly spicy soup (to be made in quantities, for its gets better day by day), you might want to try this version of Thai chicken soup. Ingredients: 1 tbsp yellow or green Thai curry paste; 4 oz large shrimp, peeled and veined; 8 oz. thin-sliced left-over chicken; 3 tins, or a litre, of coconut water; 1 pint chicken (and vegetable) stock; assorted vegetables (we use left-overs), such as aubergines, courgettes, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, bean-sprouts, lotus root, bamboo shoots, etc. (in quantities depending on how substantial you want your soup); spring onions, chopped; fresh coriander, roasted sesame oil, and rice vinegar. Fry curry paste in vegetable oil for two mins; add chicken slices and cook slowly for another two mins until well-coated with paste. Then add a few sliced or diced vegetables and cook for a further two mins, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. P our in coconut water and stock and bring to the boil, then simmer for 30 mins. Add shrimp for a further five mins, and before serving, add diced tomatoes, spring onions and bean-sprouts. Stir in rice vinegar and sesame oil and serve hot with fresh choppe

d coriander. Another excellent dish in which coconut water acts as a blender of disparate flavours is the Summer Fruit Salad. For this you need fresh seasonal fruit (plums, nectarines, kiwi, berries, etc.); sliced fresh coconut; sliced, blanched almonds; 1 tbsp o f creme do noyaux or any other nut-liqueur; fresh mint and sugar. Combine ingredients, dress with 200 mls coconut water and a squeeze of lemon, taste for sweetness and add sugar as needed, allow to rest 15-30 mins, and serve as dessert. Among the many other uses of coconut water sampled over the years are: fresh fish (especially mackerel) baked in coconut water with ginger and chopped fresh fennel; a variation on the spicy shrimp dish of northern Brazil, the famous shrimps baiana, i n which - in addition to frying in Dende oil and hot red peppers - coconut water is used, quickly reduced over a hot fire, to sweeten the dish; the savoury pangek detailed in Sri Owen's fine book on Indonesian cooking, which also uses fiddle-heads, or fe

rn shoots; chicken breasts poached in coconut water and then lightly flavoured with fresh ginger and coriander. We have used Sri Owen's excellent recipe for santen, pressed coconut flesh (from a mature nut.) The resulting oily mixture (just squeeze grated flesh in your hands, strain and add water as needed, repeating the process several times until you have th e desired thickness or thinness - more water obviously thins) is a splendid addition to almost any 'oriental' sauce. It not merely thickens sauces without becoming sticky, but also adds a subtle sweetness. Added as a paste to meats or fish, it brings out

the flavour. The good, inventive cook, will find a hundred uses for the coconut. The way we cook now, blending ingredients from all around the world, there is no reason to be a purist. If you would learn more, Alan Davidson, in the latest Petit Propos Culinaires, reports enthusiastically on Honesto C. General's 'The Coconut Cookery of Bicol' (Manila, Bookmark, 1994.)