The coconut (cocos nucifera) belongs to the palm family (arecaceae). Grown in abundance in Malaysia, Polynesia and southern Asia, they are classed as a fruit and frequently confused for a nut – but the coconut is actually a one-seeded drupe. In Sanskrit, the coconut palm is known as kalpa vriksha – ‘tree which gives all that is necessary for living’ – because nearly all parts can be used, including the water, milk, flesh, sugar and oil. Even the husks and leaves are used as materials in furnishings and decoration. Palm trees produce coconuts up to 13 times a year, and although it takes a year for the coconuts to mature, a fully blossomed tree can produce between 60-180 coconuts in a single harvest.
How it’s made
Creamed coconut and coconut milk are made in a way surprisingly akin to their dairy counterparts. Coconut flesh (the white part) is grated and soaked in hot water. The coconut cream rises to the top and can be skimmed off. The remaining liquid is squeezed through a cheesecloth to extract a white liquid that is coconut milk. By repeating this process, the coconut milk becomes thinner. The thicker version is used for desserts and rich sauces. Thin coconut milk is used for cooking curries and soups. In the UK, fresh coconut milk is unavailable and coconut milk is bought in cans.
A note on coconut water…
Coconut milk is different to coconut water. Coconut water is the clear liquid from the centre of the young, green coconut and is low in fat but rich in easily digested carbohydrates. Coconut water has received a great deal of attention for its perceived health benefits, and is an important treatment for acute diarrhoea in the developing world. It is said to have a similar electrolyte balance as that found in isotonic drinks, which some claim to be useful for rehydration after intensive exercise. However, the research to date has shown inconsistent findings to support the use of coconut water as an alternative sports drink.
Coconut flesh is highly nutritious and rich in fibre, vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5 and B6 and minerals including iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous. However, the coconut milk available to us in the UK is typically canned and potentially lacking in many of these valuable micronutrients. Unlike cow’s milk, coconut milk is lactose-free so can be used as a milk substitute by those with lactose intolerance. It is a popular choice with vegans, and makes a great base for smoothies, milkshakes or as a dairy alternative in baking.
Coconuts are one of those foods that seem to oscillate between the ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food camps. Coconut milk, especially the lower-fat variety, can be used in moderation (1-2 times per week). However, The British Heart Foundation recommends swapping saturated fats, including coconut oil, for unsaturated oils when cooking.
A 100ml serving of canned coconut milk:
- 169 calories
- 1.1g protein
- 16.9g fat
- 14.6g saturated fat
- 3.3g carbohydrate
Coconuts contain significant amounts of fat, but unlike other nuts, they provide fat that is mostly in the form of medium chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs) in particular, one called lauric acid. Lauric acid is converted in the body into a highly beneficial compound called monolaurin, an antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial that destroys a wide variety of disease-causing organisms. It is therefore thought that consumption of coconut milk and other coconut-derived foods may help protect the body from infections and viruses.
MCFAs are rapidly metabolised into energy in the liver. It is thought that unlike other saturated fats, MCFAs are used up more quickly by the body and are less likely to be stored as fat. Research is mixed but recent studies are suggesting that the fats from coconut may not have such a detrimental effect on blood lipids and cardiovascular health as once thought. This is certainly one area of research to watch.
How to select and store
If you are able to get fresh coconut milk, be aware that it goes bad very quickly and should be used the same day as pressing. The canned variety is a useful storecupboard ingredient and can be stored at room temperature for a long time. Be careful to check the use-by dates and look out for damage or dents in the cans. Once opened, transfer the contents to a resealable container and refrigerate. Use within a few days. The high oil content makes coconut quickly turn rancid if not stored under proper conditions.
Make your own
Try making your own coconut milk with just water and unsweetened coconut flakes. Heat the water (make sure it doesn’t boil), add the flakes and blend. Pour through a colander to filter out the coconut pulp, then squeeze through a cheesecloth to filter out the smaller pieces of coconut. Use immediately or store in the fridge for up to four days.
Coconut milk has become a highlight of many cuisines in tropical and subtropical countries where they are grown. Coconut milk is a fantastic dairy-free alternative, popular in curry dishes.
Jersey potatoes and cauliflower make a great pairing, so why not try this tempting curry:
Cauliflower, egg & potato curry
Try lamb as part of a pilau dish:
Lamb, coconut & mango pilau
One pan, five ingredients, 20 minutes – it’s almost too good to be true:
Spicy prawn soup
Feeling the pinch? Try these soups, perfect for packed lunches or light suppers:
Spiced red lentil soup
Lightly spiced carrot soup
Coconut in Caribbean, Thai and Indian cuisines:
Easy jerk chicken with rice & peas
Thai coconut & veg broth
Kerala prawn curry
Red Thai meatball curry
Sticky rice, a Thai classic:
Sticky rice & mango
This article was last reviewed on 5 July 2019 by Kerry Torrens.
A nutritionist (MBANT) Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.
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