Coconut can star in any number of ways: dried and shredded in cookies, cakes and chocolate confections; highly concentrated extract, for use in cakes, frostings and butter creams; or transformed into coconut milk, for use in sauces both exotic and familiar.

Coconut is thought to have roots in East Asia and Melanesia (the islands of the western Pacific, south of the equator). References to the coconut exist in the time before Christ, and in the 13th century, Marco Polo encountered coconuts in Java and Nicobar. In the late 1490s, explorer Vasco de Gama found coconut palms growing on an island off Mozambique. Arab traders were likely responsible for introducing the fruit to East Africa. In the New World, the coconut was introduced to Puerto Rico by the Spanish and in the 16th century it was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese. Soon, cultivation spread to hospitable regions around the globe. Much later, towards the end of the 19th century, the coconut found its way to Florida.

Even the name “coconut” has colourful roots. Although views differ, one widely held version contends that Portuguese seamen, in attempting to describe the fruit with its three “eyes,” used the Spanish word “coco,” referring to a grotesque face.

But for the true foodie, these arcane details are best left to academics. What matters is the fruit itself, and how it translates to the plate and cup. Coconut water (the subtly flavoured, clear liquid found inside the fruit) is popular in the Caribbean islands, and is typically shipped and sold frozen to prevent spoilage. Coconut milk and cream are something entirely different and are made by pouring boiling water over grated coconut, leaving it to cool, then squeezing the liquid from the pulp through straining cloth (such as cheesecloth). Coconut milk is a staple ingredient in the southern part of India’s subcontinent and Southeast Asia—marrying exceedingly well to curries and soups—and is also used in Central America. Coconut oil, typically extracted from pressing dried coconut, is used in the making of margarine, confectionery and bakery goods, and for frying (it’s prevalent in southern India as a cooking oil).

Coconut honey is made by heating coconut milk and invert sugar along with a little of the fruit’s brown rind. An alcoholic liquor, toddy, is made by tapping the tree (by cutting off the top of a flower stem). The sap thus released ferments spontaneously and can be drunk raw or distilled. A rare and valuable product, a coconut “pearl,” occasionally forms inside the fruit. Resembling the pearl from an oyster in appearance and structure, it is thought to have medical and magical powers.

Coconut’s versatility knows no bounds. Revered foodstuff, potential panacea, magical elixir—it’s all things to all people. Well, most people. Those who don’t appreciate it, just don’t get it. All the more for us!

A lively sauce of red and green peppers, ginger, leeks, cilantro and onion, enriched with coconut milk, animates red snapper filets in this dish of Panamanian origins. This is Red Snapper with Coconut Sauce.

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 2 red snapper filets
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Pinch oregano
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup flour
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 red onion, sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and sliced
  • 3 plum tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup leeks, diced
  • 1 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 1 cup coconut milk


  1. Wash fish filets with water; pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl, crush garlic and oregano and mix together until they form a paste. Rub fish filets first with the lemon juice, then with salt and finally with the garlic-oregano paste. Set aside.
  2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, add 1 tbsp of the olive oil and allow to heat up. Add onion, peppers, tomatoes, leeks and ginger, and sauté, stirring gently, for about 5 minutes.
  3. In a small bowl, combine tomato paste, water and cilantro. Add to onion-pepper mixture. Lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add coconut milk.
  4. Dust fish filets with flour. In separate skillet over medium heat, add remaining 2 tbsp olive oil and allow pan to heat up. Pan-fry filets until light golden in colour, about 5 minutes per side. Drain excess oil from skillet. Add sauce to skillet and simmer, along with fish filets, for 3 minutes.
  5. Serve immediately with rice and fried yellow plantains.

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