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Coconuts in Caribbean Food

An everyday ingredient

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Cracked Coconut

Cracked Coconut

Photo by Cynthia Nelson

Fresh coconuts are used widely in everyday Caribbean cuisine. The flesh is freshly grated and used as is, to make sweet baked goods such as coconut bread, coconut buns, rock cakes etc. The flesh is also used to make coconut choka - an Indian chutney whereby the coconut that is fire-roasted and ground to paste with garlic, onion, hot pepper and a souring agent such as green mangoes or tamarind.

When the flesh itself is not being used directly in the dishes, lukewarm tap water is added to the grated coconut and squeezed to make fresh coconut milk. This coconut milk is used to make soups, stews, curries, gravies and to cook a variety of rice, vegetable and meat dishes.

Although canned coconut milk, dried coconut milk powder and frozen grated coconut are available in many supermarkets, there are still many households that prefer to use the fresh coconut. The texture and flavor of fresh coconut or fresh coconut milk is unbeatable. The thing that really deters most people is the task of grating the coconut. While it is not labor intensive, often the task of breaking the coconut and removing the flesh from its hard shell can be daunting and intimidating.

Canned Coconut Milk

When using canned coconut milk to make Caribbean dishes, particularly the savory dishes, always dilute the canned milk with some tap water. Depending on the brand you use, most canned coconut milk have in thickeners and when used directly from the can, it affects the finished product - you will see the curds from the milk in your food if the dish requires that all the liquid be evaporated and you can be left with a rather oily end product.

I would recommend to one-to-one ratio for diluting. In other words, mix one cup of canned coconut milk with one cup of water.

Coconut Milk Powder

As with many things, when in its powdered form, coconut milk is concentrated in flavor. The best advice is to follow the directions on the package of the product you are using.

Desiccated Coconut

Desiccated coconut in the Caribbean is exclusively an import item. Desiccated coconut comes in various textures and varieties. Be sure to read the packaging label carefully in order to select the right type for your preparation.

If a recipe calls for coconut milk, then get the regular dry desiccated coconut that has a finer texture and rehydrate according to the package instructions - often with very warm or hot water.

If a recipe calls for actual coconut flesh, particularly if you are making a sweet baked item, then bear the following in mind: if you get sweetened desiccated coconut, reduce or leave out the sugar indicated in the recipe. However, if you get the unsweetened desiccated coconut, then go ahead and leave in the sugar required in the recipe.

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