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
Fresh coconut: Coconut slaw (souskay de coco)
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 1 whole brown coconut (or 150g of fresh coconut chunks)
- ¼ carrot, coarsely grated
- 1 small piece of fresh ginger (about 3cm/1in), finely grated
- ¼ Scotch bonnet chilli, very finely chopped (optional)
- Juice of 1 lime
- 4 tbsps coconut milk
Step 1: Carefully break open the husk of the coconut and scoop out all the meat.
Step 2: Wash the coconut meat in water and pat dry with paper towels.
Step 3: Coarsely grate the coconut meat into a large mixing bowl.
Step 4: Add the grated carrot, ginger and chilli to the bowl and season with salt to taste. Next, squeeze in the lime juice, and pour in the coconut milk, then stir well to ensure it is evenly mixed in. Cover the bowl with clingfilm (plastic wrap) and place in the refrigerator for one hour before serving.
Source: Creole Kitchen: Sunshine Flavours From The Caribbean by Vanessa Bolosier (£25, Pavilion)
Coconut flakes: Coconut curry
Ingredients (serves 4)
- Coconut oil
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- Large bunch of fresh coriander
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- Thumb-sized piece of ginger, chopped
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 2 carrots, chopped into 0.5cm rounds
- 1 tbsp fennel seeds
- 1 tbsp mustard seeds
- 400g butternut squash, cut into 0.5cm slices
- 400g tin chopped tomatoes
- 400g tin of coconut milk
- 2 tbsps tamarind paste
- 500g coconut flakes
- 2 unwaxed limes
- 2 tbsps maple syrup
- 200g spinach
Step 1: Preheat oven to 200°C/180°C fan. Put 1 tsp of coconut oil in a large pan and cook the onion for 5 minutes. Chop the coriander stalks and add to the pan with the garlic, ginger, chilli, carrots. Cook for a few minutes.
Step 2: Add the seeds and cook until the mustard seeds pop. Add the squash, tomatoes, coconut milk and tamarind. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Next, cook the coconut flakes, grated zest of 1 lime and maple syrup in the oven for 5 minutes.
Step 3: Stir the spinach, coriander and juice of both limes into the curry. Serve with brown rice and the roasted coconut.
Source: A Modern Way To Cook by Anna Jones (£25, Fourth Estate)
Coconut sugar: Pineapple and carrot cake with coconut frosting
Ingredients (serves 12)
For the frosting:
- 70g coconut sugar
- 400ml tin of coconut milk, cold
- Juice and seeds of 3 passionfruits
For the cake:
- 2 eggs
- 70g coconut sugar
- 2 tbsps coconut oil
- 200g ground almonds
- ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 2 carrots, grated
- 100g pineapple chunks, chopped
- 40g raisins
- 20g shredded coconut
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 160°C, line a 20cm cake tin and grease with coconut oil. Put the coconut sugar in a pan with 2 tbsps water over a medium heat and whisk for 2 minutes until it creates a thick syrup. Transfer to a bowl and leave for 2 hours.
Step 2: Beat the eggs and dry ingredients to form a light batter. Stir in the carrots, pineapple, raisins and coconut. Transfer to the tin and bake for 30 minutes.
Step 3: Scoop the creamy layer of coconut milk into a bowl, whisk then stir in the syrup and passionfruit juice. Spread the cooled cake with the frosting mixture and decorate with seeds.
Source: The Foodie Teen by Alessandra Peters (£16.99, Michael Joseph)
Coconut water: Tom yum goong
Ingredients (serves 2 as a light meal)
- 400ml water
- 200ml unflavoured, unsweetened coconut water
- 2 red bird’s eye chillies, halved
- 3 slices of galangal, peeled
- 5 kaffir lime leaves
- 2 lemongrass stalks, woody outer layers removed
- 6 cherry tomatoes
- Handful of fresh oyster mushrooms, washed and torn
- 6 large uncooked prawns in their shells
- 1 tsp nam prik pao (Thai roasted chilli paste)
- 1 lime, halved, for juicing
- 2 tbsps fish sauce
- A few sprigs of coriander
Step 1: Simmer the water and coconut water in a pan with the chillies, galangal, 2 lime leaves and lemongrass for 20 minutes with the lid on. Sieve and remove unwanted leaves, etc.
Step 2: Add the tomatoes and mushrooms and simmer for 3 minutes. Add the prawns and remaining lime leaves, torn in half. Bring to a simmer, then take off the heat. Leave for 5 minutes, then stir in the nam prik pao.
Step 3: Add the juice of half a lime and 1 tbsp of fish sauce to each bowl. Pour in the soup and top with chopped coriander.
Source: Chinatown Kitchen by Lizzie Mabbott (£20, Mitchell Beazley)
Coconut nectar: Coconut and carrot muffins
Ingredients (makes 12 muffins)
- 60g coconut oil
- 6 eggs
- 4 tbsps coconut milk
- 100g coconut nectar
- 2 tsps vanilla extract
- 1 tsp Himalayan pink salt
- 70g coconut flour
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 100g grated carrot
- 30g desiccated coconut, plus extra for topping
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/gas mark 3 and line a muffin tray with 12 cases.
Step 2: Melt the coconut oil and pour into a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, coconut milk, coconut nectar, vanilla extract and salt and whisk until combined. Sieve in the coconut flour and baking powder and whisk until smooth and most of the lumps are gone. Add the grated carrot and desiccated coconut and stir once more.
Step 3: Spoon the mixture into the muffin cases, sprinkle with some desiccated coconut and bake for 20 minutes, rotating halfway, until the tops are golden brown, firm to touch and bounce back when you press them lightly. Leave to cool in the tin before serving.
Source: Clean Cakes by Henrietta Inman (£20, Jacqui Small)
Coconut milk: Coconut custard filled pumpkin
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 4 small carnival squashes
- 1 medium kabocha squash
- 3 large free-range eggs
- 180ml coconut milk
- 180g palm sugar, or light brown sugar
- A big pinch of sea salt
Step 1: Prepare the squashes like a Hallowe’en pumpkin: cut the top off, then dig out all the seeds and stringy insides.
Step 2: In a bowl, beat together the eggs, coconut milk, sugar and salt. Stir well.
Step 3: Pour the mixture into the hollow squashes, then arrange in a colander or
Step 4: Set the colander or steamer pan over a pan of gently boiling water.
Step 5: Cover and let steam over a medium heat for 25-45 minutes, depending on size of squash. Stick a toothpick in to check – if it comes out wet, cook for a while more.
Step 6: Remove the squashes and allow to cool. The custard will firm up. Serve cold with teaspoons for digging in, or slice into wedges.
Source: Chicken And Rice by Shu Han Lee (£20, Fig Tree)