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Take Two: Coconut Milk   Page 1 | 2

Do you know the difference between "coconut milk" and "coconut milk"?   Depending on where you are and what language you are speaking, there's a big difference in use, taste and nutrition.

When we refer to coconut milk in English in the USA, we usually mean the liquid or water in the center of the coconut.  This liquid is at its best when the coconut is very fresh and immature, the meat of the nut still like jelly.  By the time coconuts reach northern markets as round, brown balls, the peak of taste is past.   As the coconut meat hardens into the familiar form we use for decorating cakes and making candies, this liquid is beginning to deteriorate. 

In most languages, this is referred to as "coconut water", or "aqua de coco" in Spanish.  It's a refreshing drink that has saved the life of more than one shipwrecked sailor.  Legend says that mothers who have stopped nursing can start producing milk again in order to breast feed another person's baby if they drink enough coconut water, but I haven't verified that personally.   It's a fact, though, that when the military doctors ran out of plasma in WWII in the South Pacific, they sometimes substituted coconut milk (water).

Most of the coconut trees for which Miami is famous, as well as those in many Caribbean islands, have been wiped out by a bacteria, transmitted by a flying insect.  It causes a disease called "lethal yellowing" and kills the tree within a year or so.  Some varieties are resistant to this disease, and coconuts are now making a comeback. 

The best way to drink this beverage is to yank a fully formed young coconut off the tree and hack off the pointy end opposite the stem, little by little, with a cleaver, hatchet or machete.   When you can see the end of the coconut shell, stop chopping.   Get a steak knife or other pointy object, locate one of the "eyes" (there's three, sort of like a bowling ball), stick a plastic straw in it, and enjoy.   When all the liquid is gone, you can discard the husk or hack the coconut open and scoop out the jelly if you like the taste and can stand the calories.  

In Miami and all around the world in the tropics and subtropics, coco stands abound, more common that soda machines.  Piles of green or yellow-rusty-colored fresh coconuts await the thirsty, and the trusty machete is used with abandon by the "coco frio" vendor, chopping off the tops to be drunk directly from the shell or sipped discretely with a straw.  

I've got the habit, too.  Not being inclined to try to get one off a tree myself or hack it open, I usually can get a neighbor or employee to do it for me, sharing another coco with the picker/hacker.  I love them! 

In the tropics, boys or young men take pride in climbing coconut trees, always barefoot, hanging on at the top with one hand while they twist off the coconut with the other.  On tall trees it's usual to tie a rope around waist and tree, both to act as a brace to lean into as one climbs, and as security against a tragic fall.  In some countries, pet monkeys have been trained to run up tall trees and twist the coconuts until they fall to the ground.  A pile of coconuts results in praise and an edible treat by the owner/trainer.  Sometimes contests are run, either just between humans, or between a human and a monkey.   The monkey usually wins! 

Coconut "milk", or water, is low in fat and calories.   One cup contains 46 calories and half a gram of fat, of which 0.4 grams are saturated fat.  It contains no cholesterol.    It contains traces of a wide range of minerals, vitamins and amino acids, but is high in potassium, something our bodies need more of in hot weather.  When a recipe calls for "coconut milk", don't use this liquid!   That's not what it means.

Coconut milk, the real, extracted stuff, has a totally different composition than "coconut milk", the clear beverage.  One cup can have up to 552 calories and 57 grams of fat, 50 grams of which are saturated!!!     Never the less, you can see why this hunger-satisfying item is scrounged from trash piles of yard clippings or harvested from beaches and public or undeveloped lands by the less fortunate, wherever coconuts grow.  This amount of calories adds greatly to the total meal's calorie count, too.  Real pi˝a coladas are made with coconut milk,  providing a double whammy as far as calories are concerned.  

My introduction to real coconut milk or "leche de coco", occurred many decades ago.   Having seen the handwriting on the wall, so as to speak, I was trying become fluent in Spanish.    Hispanics were starting to move into our neighborhood, and I made friends, with an English/Spanish dictionary in hand, in order to learn the language, the customs and the cuisine.  The welfare department had moved a Honduran woman, whose husband had abandoned her and her baby, into our apartment complex.   It was summer and back then everything closed down in Miami from May through September; there was absolutely no work available.  Food supplies for many consisted of federal surplus food back then, mostly flour, rolled wheat and oats, cornmeal, beans, rice, lard, dried milk, powdered eggs, a little canned mystery meat, American cheese and canned butter.  Food stamps hadn't been thought of.  Those who indeed had no money at all eked these surplus foods out any way they could, by fishing in the nearest canal or off one of the causeways, growing anything possible, sorting through grocery dumpsters and scrounging fruit and coconuts from dooryards and trash piles.   Frequently this young Honduran set out with an empty shopping bag, baby on one hip, and came back with bits and pieces of discarded clothing and housewares, as well as various edibles. 

After one excursion I found her out in the yard under a tree, the best place to escape some of Miami's brutal summer heat in the years before air conditioning, with a large old kitchen knife, a square tin grater, a large bowl and a pile of mature coconuts.   With the knife,  she hacked and whacked until she was able to tug away the woody, stringy covering.   She discarded the water, explaining that it was too old to taste good.  The coconut meat popped out with a little prodding.   Taking a slab in hand, she began to grate the white part until only the tough, brown skin remained, which was discarded.  

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