First came coconut water. Then oil. Now, coconut sugar is the ingredient du jour. Stylist reveals how the coconut became our foodie best friend
Words: Felicity Cloake
Photography: Levi Brown
It’s hard to believe but not so long ago snacking on coconut in Britain meant one thing: dry, sugary flakes, wrapped in milk chocolate. Thank you, Bounty. Brainwashed by adverts promising a taste of paradise, I can still remember the shock of encountering the real thing on a Keralan beach aged 18. The shiny green ball looked nothing like the hairy coconuts in the ads (nor the picture on my delicious-smelling Boots’ body butter), and its thin juice and jellied flesh didn’t prove quite the satisfying treat I’d been expecting. I’ll be honest, I was pretty underwhelmed.
These days no child could grow up in such woeful ignorance. Not when you can buy a ‘drinking coconut’ at any high street M&S (complete with ring-pull and straw – take that, Mother Nature) and find own-brand versions of the once niche coconut oil. In fact, sales of the latter are up a staggering 209% at Sainsbury’s, while Waitrose has seen demand for its coconut flour rocket by 24% month-on-month. And that’s just the tip of the hairy iceberg. Emily Noble, regional grocery buyer for Whole Foods Market – whose range includes coconut vinegar, coconut dog chews and coconut jam – predicts that this year coconut will be “everywhere – not only as a flavour, but also as a dairy and even a meat alternative” in the form of their new coconut jerky (made from dehydrated coconut flesh).
It almost makes the once exotic-sounding coconut water, which kick-started our obsession, seem rather tame. Long popular in places like Brazil and Thailand, coconut water appeared in the US in 2004, with brightly coloured cartons stocked in yoga studios, quickly catching the eye of the beautiful people. With Rihanna and Jessica Alba soon advertising it on billboards, and Madonna and Demi Moore investing in brands like Vita Coco, by the time it arrived on these shores in 2010, it couldn’t fail. And it didn’t; the industry is now estimated to be worth £100m in the UK.
Today, coconut water has replaced fizzy drinks as the hangover cure of choice. Loaded with electrolytes like potassium and sodium, it’s a far healthier choice. And, clever marketing or not, it does taste as if it’s doing you good, like a gently reviving nectar.
Similarly, the health properties of coconut flour (made from dried and ground coconut pulp) are propelling it to become a main player in clean-eating recipes and cool cook books alike, from Luke Hines’ banana bread to The Healthy Chef Theresa Cutter’s one-bowl chocolate cake. Coconut flour has a higher protein and fibre content than the wheat variety, while coconut sugar has a low glycaemic index so, as Alessandra Peters of The Foodie Teen blog explains, “It causes a less dramatic spike in blood sugar than ordinary cane.” Plus it tastes more interesting too; like a “lovely caramel”, according to Peters.
Coconut oil’s appeal, however, is its versatility. Had enough of Thai stir fries (it can withstand high temperatures, making it a far better choice than olive oil)? Slather the last scoop on your skin as a moisturiser (below 24°C it’s solid). Gwyneth Paltrow even uses it as mouthwash, claiming it keeps her teeth pearly white. And, while high in fat, those fatty acids can kill harmful pathogens to help prevent infection an improve blood cholesterol levels too.
But perhaps the main reason coconut ingredients have become so popular is because they offer fantastic alternatives to common allergens. Coconut flour is gluten-free, while coconut milk, yoghurt and oil are entirely dairy-free. And because coconuts are seeds, not nuts, they score big for anyone with nut allergies. But it’s not just the free-from crowd crowning coconut as the new king of the kitchen. Thanks to cool eateries like Covent Garden’s 26 Grains giving porridge a moreish twist with coconut milk, or east London cafe Bel-Air adding coconut to everything from stews to salads, we’re all going well, loco for coco.
And that’s the thing about coconut: superfood or not, it’s so damn delicious and so incredibly versatile, it’s hard not to go a bit nutty for the stuff. Want the true taste of paradise? Here are a few ideas to get you started - click through our gallery for recipes using every coconut ingredient from its milk to fresh chunks...
Photography: Levi Brown/Trunkarchive.com