In preparing to write an article on vegan Filipino cuisine for Vegetarian Journal, I began researching the intriguing array of ingredients typical to the cuisine of these faraway islands.
Always on the hunt for dishes that feature nuts in their recipes, I was amazed to discover how extensively employed coconuts are in everyday Filipino dishes. Liberally used are not just coconut milk and coconut cream, but also everything from the sweet water of the young coconut, the young coconut meat (buko), and the meat of the mature coconut (makapuno). All are included in some form in numerous home-style recipes and beverages.
The mention of coconut water brings warm memories of a recent visit to Manila to see my son, who has been living in the Philippines for many years. Seems I had a good excuse to hop on a plane with my husband and enjoy exploring many corners of this fascinating country.
While visiting, I always look forward to the fortifying snack of young coconut, so readily available at snack stands or markets. You can easily recognize a young coconut by its slightly off-white fibrous skin and its dramatic, cone-shaped top. The place is hot, really, really hot and humid, and it’s easy to feel like you’re melting away. We discovered that a young coconut is the quickest way to restore the soul with invigorating comfort. The cool, refreshing, and naturally sweet coconut water works like magic to bring relief from the oppressive climate. The coconut water is refreshing for good reason–it’s high in potassium, calcium, and magnesium and low in fat.
Snacking like a Filipino
To reach the coconut meat, an experienced coconut aficionado is usually on hand to open the tough shell with the skillful whack of a frightfully wicked-looking knife. Within moments, I was plunging my small plastic spoon into the thin layer of soft, quivering, jelly-like coconut meat.
So what’s a young coconut like to eat? It depends on the maturity. Texture-wise, a young coconut is spongy soft, gelatinous, and delicately sweet. The delicate flesh of a really young coconut is so airy and satin-like that within three or four spoonfuls, it’s gone in a whisk. One that’s a little more “mature” might have sweet, slightly firmer meat, but never as firm as the fully mature crunchy, shredded coconut used for baked goodies. Because the meat of the young coconut amounts to no more than just a few spoonfuls, it refreshes and comforts completely without leaving one overfull. It’s one of my favorite snacks.
If left on the tree to mature completely, that coconut would contain the familiar firm, chewy, white meat that turns up in supermarkets as sweetened, shredded or dried, grated unsweetened coconut.
When I returned home, I found myself craving young coconut. I hadn’t paid much attention to coconuts before. Just thinking about how to open one seemed daunting. But now that I’ve seen how easy it is, I thought I would share a few simple steps with you.
Coconut wizardry made easy
First, you’ll need to drink the coconut water or pour it into a container and refrigerate it to enjoy later. You can use hammer and an awl or firm, pointed tool to poke a hole in the top of the coconut. The hole should be large enough to poke in a straw so you can sip the delicious beverage leisurely.
Alternatively, you can lay the coconut on its side and whack the top 1 1/2 inches off with a very firm, sharp clever. You’ll have to give it some really aggressive blows to accomplish this. Though the meat is ultra soft, the shell is tough as nails. You can then put your straw into the coconut or tip the coconut and pour out the water. You may lose some of the delicious water in the process until your coconut-opening skills improve.
To enjoy the young coconut meat, the only tool you’ll need is a spoon to simply scoop it up, one delicious spoonful at a time.
There’s a considerable distinction between the water of a young coconut and that of a mature coconut. Young coconut water is sweet, delicious, and nourishing, while the water of mature coconuts is not sweet and usually discarded.
From scratch coconut cream
Coconut cream and coconut milk are extracted from mature coconut meat. You might say we’re a bit spoiled because we can easily go to the grocery and buy both coconut cream and coconut milk in cans. Because this convenience is so available, most of us are unaware of the laborious and time-consuming process involved in extracting coconut milk.
If you’re a do-it-from-scratch cook, you’ll relish the process: It’s not difficult, just time consuming. First, pierce the three eyes of the mature coconut using a hammer and awl, and discard the coconut water.
Then, use a hammer to crack the coconut open. Scoop out the flesh, and chop it into thumbnail-size pieces. Put half of them into a blender with 1 1/2 cups of hot water, and blend for about 30 seconds.
Line a bowl with several layers of cheesecloth large enough to drape over the sides and pour in the blender contents. Lift up the cheesecloth and squeeze to extract the liquid. This liquid, the first pressing, is rich, thick, full-fat coconut cream. Repeat with the other half of the coconut meat.
For coconut milk, put the coconut meat back into the blender with about 1 cup of warm water and process. Extract the liquid by pouring and squeezing the liquid through the cheesecloth. The result will be medium-fat coconut milk.
To make low-fat coconut milk, follow the same procedure a third time, using about 1 cup of warm water in the blender. To many people living outside the major cities in the South Pacific, extracting coconut milk is common practice.
Time to cook an island delight
Below is a delicious, celebratory Filipino main dish that features coconut milk and pineapple, two food treats that are grown throughout the islands. The dish is super easy to make because the ingredients list and the process are so short, you’ll have it done in 3 steps. Serve it over rice for a winning meal. An everyday staple of the Filipino diet is white rice, but brown rice is so much healthier.
I like the short-grain brown rice because of its chewy nature and its stickiness, similar to sticky white rice but much better for you because of its higher fiber content. It’s available in Asian markets or natural food stores and takes about 35 to 45 minutes to cook.
The traditional recipe with an untraditional twist
You’re about to shake hands with Pinnyahang Manok, a rich, flavorful Filipino coconut milk and pineapple dish. The actual Tagalog translation is Pineapple Chicken Stew, so you can see I’ve taken a traditional Filipino chicken dish and applied a little kitchen magic to turn it into a delicious vegan delight. I’ve also lowered the fat content considerably by using the water-sauté method to cook the onions and carrots rather than sautéeing in oil or butter.
Another departure is the addition of oyster mushrooms, which do not typically appear in this island dish. The mushrooms definitely do add a tasty touch, yet keep the dish delicately flavored to show off the coconut milk and pineapple.
This recipe, seasoned simply with garlic, salt, and a bit of miso, makes a mouthwatering, light summer meal served over brown rice. Enjoy!
(Coconut Tofu with Pineapple)
Yield: 5 to 6 servings
1 large onion, sliced, slices halved
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
5 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3/4 pound firm or extra firm tofu, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
3 1/2 ounces oyster mushrooms, large ones halved
1 small white potato, unpeeled, cut into bite-size pieces
1 (13.5-ounce) can low-fat to medium-fat coconut milk
1 tomato, diced
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cups canned or fresh bite-size pineapple chunks, drained
12 whole snow peas, trimmed
1 to 3 teaspoons red miso or to taste
1. Combine the onion, carrot, and garlic in a large, deep skillet. Add 3 or 4 tablespoons water and water-sauté the vegetables over high heat, stirring frequently, for about 5 to 8 minutes, or until the onions are soft and transparent. Add 1 or more tablespoons of water as needed to cook the onions and carrots and prevent burning.
2. Add the tofu, mushrooms, coconut milk, and tomato and cook about 2 to 3 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
3. Add the pineapple chunks and snow peas and cook for 1 or 2 minutes. Adjust the seasoning with the miso and salt.
HOMEMADE COCONUT MILK
Want to make fresh coconut milk at home? It’s easy. All you need is the grated flesh of one mature coconut, which makes about 4 cups grated flesh. To save time, buy frozen grated coconut flesh in an Asian market. Allow it to thaw completely and combine it with 1/2 cup of water in a bowl. Squeeze the flesh with your hands and you’ll soon have rich coconut cream. Strain the coconut cream. The flesh is still perfectly usable and makes a great addition to a fresh salad.
If you’re aiming for a low-fat coconut milk, strain and reserve the coconut cream, and knead the flesh again with about 2 to 2 1/2 cups of water for a really thin, low-fat coconut milk. Adding about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of water will result in a medium-fat coconut milk. Strain and enjoy.