A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts

Coconut palm

Coconuts in the Caribbean (Barbados)

Tree of Life—it sounds somewhat mythical or mystical, but in many parts of the world, not only does such a tree exist, it exists in abundance. It is the coconut palm, that slender, graceful tree that is so much a part of our image of tropical paradise. While coconut is enjoyed worldwide, for approximately one-third of the planet’s population, coconut is a major food group. It is an essential part of the diet in West Africa, and coconuts and coconut milk are dominant ingredients in the cuisines of southern India, Southeast Asia, Malaysia, and the South Pacific. In many of these places, coconut milk holds a position similar to, and even more important than, that of cow’s milk in Western cultures. While most of us in the West think of coconut as a confection, it is important enough in the Eastern hemisphere to be considered a world staple and one of the planet’s most important food crops.

It is in the South Seas that the coconut palm is called the Tree of Life. In places where farming is difficult or impossible and no grains are raised, as is true of many Pacific islands, coconut has long been the primary source of nutrition. In areas where farming is possible, coconuts are sometimes the only food that survives when typhoons devastate rice paddies or cornfields. So every family has a few trees growing in the yard.

Wherever coconut palms grow, people depend on them for more than just the nutrient-dense flesh of their nuts. One South Pacific saying states that “He who plants a coconut tree plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a habitation for himself and a heritage for his children.” The hard nutshells, the roots, the flowers, the husk fibers (called coir), the fronds, and the wood of the trunk are all utilized. In southern India, where innumerable “toddy houses” serve coconut beer, almost every recipe includes coconut, and coir is a major export item, the coconut palm is called the Tree of Wealth, because every part of the tree can be turned to profit.

In Thailand, coconut milk and coconut meat appear in numerous recipes, but sometimes, the massive bunch of flowers produced by a coconut palm are not allowed to develop into coconuts. The huge amount of liquid the tree pumps into creating coconuts can be drained from the flower cluster and boiled down to make palm sugar, much as maple sap is turned into maple sugar in North America. The liquid can also be used as a beverage or fermented to produce alcohol.

Coconuts float and then take root wherever they strike land (even after months in salt water), so it is difficult to nail down a birthplace for the plant. It seems likely that coconut palms started out in the Indo-Malaysian region, though some theorize that they originated in the Pacific islands. But wherever they started, coconuts had spread, and were appreciated, throughout much of the tropical Asian-Pacific region thousands of years ago.

The depiction of coconuts on pre-Columbian pottery from Peru supports the theory that they reached South America across the Pacific Ocean. Though coconuts arrived in South America before Europeans did, they had not been carried to the Caribbean by the time of Columbus’s visit—and we are assured of this by the fact that Columbus wrote about everything they ate or saw being eaten in the new lands they were exploring. (Coconuts were introduced later to the Caribbean by Europeans bringing them from Africa.)

It seems that the coconut first came to the attention of the Western world in the 6th century. Trade between south Asia and the Middle East had already been taking place for about 1,500 years, and coconuts may have been imported at any time during that period, but it was first noted by Europeans that coconuts were being eaten in Egypt during this century. The information didn’t make much of an impression, and coconuts weren’t mentioned again until Marco Polo headed east in the late 13th century. Encountering coconuts in India, Sumatra, and the Nicobar Islands, he described them as being “as sweet as sugar and as white as milk,” and wrote that a coconut provided a complete meal of drink and meat. He also called them “Pharaoh’s nut,” showing that he had at some point run across the historical observation that Egyptians were eating coconuts a few centuries earlier. But coconuts still didn’t catch on in the West.

During the voyage that first circumnavigated the globe, Magellan and his crew encountered coconuts when, reduced to the point of starvation, they went ashore on the island of Guam in 1521. Among the food stores the crew took on board were plenty of coconuts. Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian nobleman traveling with Magellan and documenting the voyage, wrote that “As we have bread, wine, oil, and vinegar, so they get all these things from [coconut] trees…. With two of these palm trees, a whole family of ten can sustain itself.”

Sir Francis Drake came across the coconut in 1577, while making his own circumnavigation of the globe. He was impressed, and he tried to describe it to the folks back home, but his writing did little to increase interest. It wasn’t until the buccaneer/explorer William Dampier brought coconuts to England from his voyages to Australia and New Guinea (1686-1701) that they began to develop an audience in the West. But widespread popularity did not occur until 1831, when J. W. Bennett published in London “A Treatise on the Coco-nut Tree, and the Many Valuable Properties Possessed by the Splendid Palm.” With everything from better health to fewer wrinkles attributed to use of the tree and its seed, imports began to increase.

By the late 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution was creating more widespread wealth and people at many levels of society were treating themselves to minor luxuries, Europe’s confectionary industry was really getting started. Demand for coconut increased again. But the real revolution in coconut consumption started in 1888, when J. H. Vavasseur and Company discovered that by shredding and drying the coconut meat, they reduced the coconuts’ weight by half, and therefore dramatically reduced shipping costs. Over the next decade, the amount of coconut exported from Ceylon to England and Europe jumped from six thousand tons a year to sixty thousand.

In the United States, coconut was still a novelty until 1895. The shaky economy of a Cuba fighting for its freedom from Spain led to one American businessman, Franklin Baker of Philadelphia, finding himself being paid in coconuts—thousands of them. Baker turned to the technology that had worked in Ceylon, and the Pennsylvania entrepreneur was soon supplying Baker’s Coconut for a boom of its own creation. More than a hundred years later, Baker’s is still America’s best-known brand of shredded coconut.

During World War II, many soldiers in the Pacific Theater found the coconut to be a tree of life for another reason. The sugary water found inside the coconut seed is so pure that it could be used to transfuse patients when bottles of sterile glucose solution were in short supply.

And just so you know, that sugary water inside the coconut is called coconut water, not coconut milk. Coconut milk is something that is produced by a laborious process of grating coconut meat, adding a little water, and then squeezing out the milk. Fortunately, while we can still make coconut milk by hand if we wish, most of us now have access to canned coconut milk.

There is only one variety of coconut. Coconuts worldwide are members of the species Cocos nucifera. Coco is Portuguese for “goblin,” because the three spots on the hairy, brown inner shell apparently reminded early Portuguese and Spanish explorers of a little, wizened face. Nucifera means “nut bearing,” which each tree does continuously for 50 years or more. One palm produces an average of 50 or more coconuts annually. About 20 billion of these versatile, valuable, goblin-faced nuts are produced worldwide each year. Coconut has gained popularity as a confection in most parts of the world, and coconut oil is an important commodity on the world market. However, it is in the tropics, where coconut palms flourish in the heat and humidity, that the Tree of Life still has its most devoted audience.

Coconut Palms in Kerala

In beautiful, tropical Kerala in southern India, it is said that there are more coconuts than there are stars in the sky. As with most tropical areas, coconuts are an important part of the cuisine.

[This originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.]

©2008 Cynthia Clampitt


Filed under culinary history, Food, History, Travel

3 responses to “A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts

  1. Hi,
    What a beautiful photo! Your site came to my attention via the William Dampier comment above. We are publishers of Dampier’s book A New Voyage Round the World. It was fun to read about the coconut. Thanks for the information. I’ve just ordered a copy of Waltzing Australia. Congratulations on making your dreams come true.
    Eileen Bertelli
    1500 Books

  2. Thanks for visiting—and for buying my book. You’ll find William Dampier in the book, as well, when I visit Broome. I visited your site, too, and it looks very interesting, if a bit dangerous for a lover of books and adventures.

  3. Pingback: The history of macaroons - The Cottage Feast

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