Like blood pudding, sesame oil and black olives, coconut is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of food. Rich, subtly sweet and assertive, coconut’s flavour is as distinctive as it is irresistible.

Coconut can star in many ways: dried and shredded in cookies, cakes and confections; a highly concentrated extract in cakes, frostings and buttercreams; or transformed into coconut milk in sauces, both exotic and familiar.

Coconut is thought to have roots in East Asia and Melanesia (the islands of the southwest Pacific). References to the fruit exist in the time before Christ, and in the 13th century, Marco Polo encountered coconuts in Java and the Nicobar Islands.

In the late 1490s, explorer Vasco da 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. Toward the end of the 19th century, the coconut found its way to Florida.

Even the name “coconut” has colourful roots. Although views differ, one 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 true foodies, these details matter little compared to 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 entirely different and are made by pouring boiling water over grated coconut, letting it cool, then squeeze the liquid from the pulp through a straining cloth.

Coconut milk is a staple 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 making 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 inverting sugar with a little of the fruit’s brown rind. Toddy, an alcoholic liquor, is made by tapping the tree. The sap it releases ferments spontaneously and can be drunk raw or distilled. A rare “pearl” occasionally forms inside a coconut. Resembling a pearl from an oyster, it’s thought to have medical and magical powers.

Revered foodstuff, culinary staple, 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!

Red Snapper with Coconut Sauce

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.

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

Coconut Sauce
1 red onion, sliced
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and
3 plum tomatoes
1/2 cup leeks, diced
1 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup water
1 cup fresh 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 more minutes. Stir in coconut milk.

4. Dust fish fillets with flour. In a separate skillet over medium heat, add remaining 2 tbsp olive oil and allow the 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.

Serves 2 as a main course. Give our recipe a try and tell us what you think! And if during your travels you sample a delicious dish and want to share, go to [email protected]

Ciao for now!

Emma Waverman and Eshun Mott are longtime food writers and recipe developers who penned a column for Outpost magazine, and co-authored the family cookbook Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and Families Who Love Them. You can find Emma regularly at Here and Now on CBC Radio One.

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