The Coconut Chronicles

I’ve been in the US for twenty years now, and all this time I’ve cooked exclusively with canned coconut milk.  It has its pros and cons – its a super convenient way to get that beautiful coconut-ty creaminess into dishes,  without all the hassle and mess of scraping fresh coconuts and extracting the milk yourself.  Unfortunately,  freshness is exactly what you lose in using the canned stuff and what you gain are preservatives and things like BPAs.  Yuck!  So,  here’s my family’s journey back to the hassle and mess – and back to gorgeous, tasty, fresh coconut milk.
The story begins with my husband lodging a complaint with the kitchen (me!) regarding the use of canned coconut milk.  He claims that while able to scarf down all manner of curried goodness back home in Malaysia without problems,  here in Brooklyn my curries with canned coconut milk made him….uhm, less than happy.  You figure out what that means.   Because of these issues,  I’ve cut way back on cooking with coconut milk and have been humoring him with Caribbean-style curries,  which do not use coconut milk.  On the rare occasion that I did cook with coconut milk,  it was usually because we had guests and he would refrain from indulging in the delicious curries.  The poor thing.  Over time,  a conversation began about figuring out a way to get fresh-squeezed coconut milk here in Brooklyn.  I’ve been very resistant to the idea because I know just how difficult and time-consuming it can be to scrape or shred a coconut so that the milk can be extracted from it.  Back home in Malaysia,  you can get freshly scraped coconut at any market and even at local neighborhood grocery stores,  then take it home and squeeze it for fresh milk.  How civilized!  When I was a child,  we had three coconut trees in our backyard and occasionally when my Mum forgot to get scraped coconut from the market,  we would get one off the tree.  I was inevitably given the tedious job of scraping the coconut – which meant pulling out a little apparatus that looked like a low-to-the-ground bench with a jagged metal blade that was used to shred the coconut into a little bowl that was placed on the floor. Highly undignified and it took forever.  Remembering all this made me very unhappy at the thought of scraping coconuts in my kitchen here in Brooklyn.  Anyway,  while we were home in Malaysia,  we tried to find a solution to the coconut scraping problem – the husband talked about it at every family dinner and with all my parents’ friends.  I sullenly proclaimed that I would NOT be scraping any coconut in my kitchen in Brooklyn unless we had some sort of machine to do it.  The husband countered my brattiness with “I’ll do it,  I’ll do it – it’ll be worth it to have fresh coconut milk.” The whole community jumped into action to help us figure out a way to get fresh coconut milk – folks were suggesting places to go to find mechanical scrapers,  electric scrapers,  manual rotary scrapers. Phone calls were being made.  Heated discussions were had about what would be our best bet.  Someone suggested using a blender and was quickly shot down with a chorus of “Noooooooo,  it’s too difficult to get the flesh off the shell”. All the aunties were animated – Aunty Khim, Aunty May, Aunty Irene and my good friend Francisca.  Someone suggested a store on Singapore Street in Seremban and we went there with a quickness to find our elusive scraper.  We decided that the husband should wait in the car,  so we wouldn’t be given the “white boy price” (yes,  that DOES happen!)  Mum went deep into the back of the shop and asked for a manual or mechanical or electric coconut scraper, while I milled about nonchalantly perusing the various woks and ladles.  She emerged with a beautiful rectangular box – my heart leapt,  I thought we had found something.   She then opened up the two sides of the box,  and out of the middle of it a very familiar looking jagged metal blade folded out – ugh,  it was a modern-day version of the coconut-scraping bench I used to use when I was a kid, only this was a “designer” one where the blade could be folded neatly into the body of the bench so it looked like a pretty little box when not in use. 

coconut scraper, hand-heldMum was trying to convince me to get it, but my childhood coconut-scraping memories had me running out of there so fast I almost drove off without her. On our last day in Malaysia,  Aunty Irene showed up at our house with these hand-held scrapers.  Thank you Aunty Irene!
They’re basically a hand-held version of the little bench scraper,  so at least you’re not sitting on the ground.  It wasn’t the electric or manual rotary one we had in mind, and it would still be a lot of work,  but at least you would maintain your dignity.  Or so I thought. 

coconut,coconuts,husked,matureBack in Brooklyn,  our journey continued with a trip to Chinatown in Manhattan,  where I picked up these beautiful babies.  In selecting coconuts for milk,  look for a deep, brown color,  a good heft and a nice sloshing sound when you shake it vigorously.  These are signs of a mature coconut.  Young coconuts are lighter in color,  and don’t slosh as loudly – maybe because the flesh inside is still soft and are not good for milk.  No slosh,  no good.  Inspect the coconuts carefully for fine cracks as that will be an indication that the coconut has probably gone bad and will only bring you heartache when you get it home and pop it open to find a pinkish flesh inside instead of pure white and a disgusting, rancid smell.

open coconut, coconut flesh, fresh coconut

The next step was to crack one of them open.  I’ve seen this done a million times – in Malaysia,  when you go to a neighborhood grocery store for shredded coconut,  they crack one open right there in front of you.  I tried doing this with a cleaver – it’s much harder than it looks.  You need a really strong left hand to hold that coconut steady while you smack it hard with the dull side of the cleaver.  I tried this a couple of times and quickly got the sense that it wasn’t going to work.  Plan B – I got a couple of empty plastic shopping bags,  an empty cup (to collect the delicious coconut water), a kitchen towel and got down on the floor.  The coconut was placed on the kitchen towel and inside the plastic bag (as I didn’t want coconut water all over my kitchen floor.)  A couple of good thwacks with the cleaver and it was open.  Success.  See all that beautiful white, creamy coconut flesh?  Now for the hard part!
Since the husband had boastfully proclaimed that he would gladly scrape coconuts for fresh milk,  I set him up with a bowl,  a scraper and the open coconut.  I made myself busy with “kitchen clean up” and sat back to watch what I knew was going to happen.

coconut, scraping, shredding

Two minutes into the operation – “Wow,  this is hard.”  Five minutes into the operation – “Is this thing working? Is this how it’s supposed to go?”  Clean-up done,  I moved into the livingroom to play with the preschooler.  Ten minutes into the operation – “Hey!  I didn’t sign up for this!!”  I walked into the kitchen to find a man stripped of his prior coconut bravado.  The coconut had won this round.  So much for maintaining our dignity.  I didn’t say “I told you so”, but I just typed it here in this blog post,  didn’t I?  I picked up a second coconut scraper and jumped into the trenches with him.  Perhaps with a little teamwork,  we could get it done.  Twenty minutes of hard work later,  and with our forearms on fire, we had a good amount of scraped coconut but there was still white flesh in the shell – I remembered that back home when I used the bench scraper,  Mum would never let me get away with leaving all that coconut in the shell.  You scraped until you hit the brown of the shell,  or else! Mum wasn’t here with us,  so we wrapped up the operation,  patted each other on the back for a job almost well done and called it a day.
I knew then and there that that would be the last time the husband would ever pick up one of those scraper thingies.  Two days later he sent me a link to a newspaper article “Man kills relative with coconut scraper.”  A fate worse than swimming with the fishes.  Srsly!
I managed to get two cups of thick, creamy, FRESH coconut milk from what we had and cooked a beautiful chicken curry and some roti jala with it.  At the end of the day,  I have to admit – the husband was right.  There really is a huge difference and it definitely is worth the trouble.  Out of convenience and neccesity,  I had grown accustomed to using canned coconut milk,  but that day as I cooked with our hard-earned fresh coconut milk,  my kitchen was filled with a heavenly aroma never before smelled in our 107-year old house.  Zero preservatives,  zero toxins – 100% natural, yummy goodness.
In two days,  I’m going to be cooking a big meal that requires coconut milk for a special group of people – there are two beautiful coconuts waiting in my kitchen.  I’ve been looking up other ways of processing coconuts for milk and have found a few other ways of doing it on this blog.  The writer shares her way of doing it,  but if you also read the comments,  her readers share their ideas as well.  I may try prying the flesh out of the shell and using my juicer – I wonder how that will work.  Have any of you got your own coconut milk stories to share?  The coconut saga continues…

manual coconut scraper, scrape coconut Update (March 19,2012) – My husband gifted me with this beautiful contraption. It scrapes the meat out of fresh coconuts for squeezing.  It’s still a lot of work for a spoiled tropical babe who is accustomed to snapping her fingers (well, not really, but you get the idea) for the freshest coconut milk and having it brought to her on a golden platter by four young, loin-clothed men….. Auria! snap out of it. And there you have it, a glimpse of what goes on inside the mind of someone who still misses the convenience of going down to the neighborhood corner store or the wet market for beautiful fresh coconut milk. This actually does the job very nicely so when fresh coconut milk must be had, it’s right here at my fingertips. 
Update (January 12, 2013) – Here’s an article in the NY Times about how anyone can make fresh coconut milk at home.

4 Responses to “The Coconut Chronicles”

  1. Hi–
    I’m and old lady here in Puerto Rico. I have also three coconut trees and mostly I give them to my neighbor who makes linbel.
    But I love coconut water and coconut milk. This is my procedure.

    I tap out two of the three eyes and empty the coconut water into a cup to drink. Then I take a hammer and crack open the coconut. If I get three or four pieces of it, I am happy. If only two, it’s okay.
    I put these in the oven and heat them up for ten minutes or so. They are hot to touch, and I wait until they are easy to handle.
    Then I take the knife called a sandwich spreader (makes very quick work of p&J sandwiches). I pry up the edge of the coconut and it pops out of the shell very easily. (A pointy knife does not work well).
    Then I take the potato peeler and peel off the brown leaving the nice white meat.
    This goes in a pot of the right amount of water for however much coconut meat I have and I heat it to hot, not near boiling at all. I test it with my finger to see if it’s hot enough. That goes in the blender and gets chopped up together. Then that sits for a bit while I do something else.
    Then that gets strained into a container and if no one gets to it first, it goes in the fridge to get cold. The lovely cream floats to the top. Yum.

  2. do you know how to make that nice pan bread that is served with chicken broth and a chicken liver? Do you know what I mean. I do not know the name of it, but I think it is a Maylasian dish.

  3. Thanks for the post. A fun read!

  4. Thank you Trayls – I had fun writing it.