Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, October 17, 2001


Wahine vs. coconut

Sometimes you feel like a nut,
and only a fresh one will do -- but
how, exactly, do you break in?

By Nadine Kam

What is the world coming to? If we're not looking out for terrorists, hijackers, car thieves or letters laced with anthrax, we're wary of stepping into our back yards in fear of making contact with a stinging caterpillar or dengue-bearing mosquito.

While everyone is in survival mode, stocking up on gas masks, guns, MREs, H20 and mosquito nets, count your blessings. Consider that in Hawaii we are fortunate to have access to what may be the most tamper-resistant food -- the pharoah's nut, known to us as the humble coconut.

Ah yes, with its natural packaging of solid shell and hefty husk, it's virtually indestructible and certainly impervious to wind, rain, extreme sunlight and salty ocean current. It has yet to be tested against biohazards, but its weight and bulk makes it difficult to transport in secret, so who would bother? Receive one in the mail and it will arouse immediate suspicion.

Asia de Cuba's Tunapica mixes fresh coconut with ahi.

Yet, its water is life-sustaining, and its meat offers plentiful protein. The downside is its 159 calories and 15.1 grams of fat per 2-by-2-1/2-inch piece, 13.4 grams of it saturated. But will you care when Armageddon comes? More importantly, when that day comes, will you be able to open the thing?

In typical world-wary fashion, I have practiced. I grew up watching my dad husk coconuts, swap-meet vendors hack off the top with a machete and stick in a straw for midday refreshment, and I once saw a woman in Laie demonstrate shredding the husk with her teeth. They all made the task look easy. For the most part, it's a matter of taking a pick ax, anchoring it in the ground, then shuck, shuck, shuck, shuck. Peel. How hard could that be?

Little did I suspect.

I tried. Shuck. Small puka.

Tried again. Shuck. Second small puncture. Oh, shucks.

Called in the boyfriend.

Shuck. Some shredding.

Shuck. More shredding.

Ten shucks later, he almost fell chest first onto the ax tip. "Ugh," we said in unison. I told him to go away.

I started practicing about a year ago due to an obsession that began with a trip to The Raw Experience on Maui. The restaurant is gone now, but I was fascinated when one of the owners, Renee Underkoffler, said she drank little else but the liquid of young coconuts, a liquid comprising mostly water, with a helping of trace minerals including calcium, phosphorus and potassium. She looked amazingly healthy, so I thought maybe she was on to something.

Then, I read an article written by actress Gwyneth Paltrow for Marie-Claire. The magazine had arranged to "maroon" her on an island and to test her survival skills. The copy was flowing until I got to the part about opening coconuts. "To open the coconuts," she wrote, "I have to bash them on a sharp stick and peel the husks off. Then I use the corkscrew on my Swiss Army knife to pop a hole in it."

Her description didn't ring true. There was at least one photographer on the island taking her picture and I figured she must have had help. I just didn't believe that wisp of a girl could open a coconut with a mere stick, and if she could, well, she was not going to show up someone who grew up on an island.

Coconut tales

In legend, it is said the Philippines originated as one long island populated by giants. One day, one of the giants, in discarding a bad coconut, tossed it and hit another giant on the head. A fight ensued, with the giants flinging mounds of dirt at each other and making huge holes in the land. With no large mass to support them, the giants drowned, but the mounds of dirt they left behind formed the mountains and islands of contemporary Philippines.

Sadly, I still can't muster the upper body strength to husk the thing, but I have developed a talent for cracking the shell open, however clumsily. My procedure, after draining the liquid through holes gouged out with an awl or blunt knife, is to hammer the nut on the ground. Once you make one crack, a few more taps around the fracture line will cause the shell to split open.

With all the work it takes to open the coconut, I am loathe to do much beyond eating it plain, although I have grated some -- use it quickly or its oils will turn rancid -- to top Indian curries or to make poke the way it's done at Asia de Cuba, the Latin-Asian restaurants associated with Ian Schrager properties in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Until the time when we truly trust no one and no other foods, the more ambitious can try these recipes:

Chicken Kelaguen

Adapted from "Leblon Finatinas Para Guam" (Inetnon Famalaoan, 1985)

5 pounds chicken pieces
Juice of 3 to 4 lemons
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/2 coconut, grated
2 small hot peppers
Salt to taste

Barbecue, bake or broil chicken pieces until browned and cooked through. Cool; remove bones and chop into 1/2-inch pieces. Remove skin if desired. Toss chicken with remaining ingredients.

Approximate nutritional analysis per 1/2 cup serving (without added salt): 290 calories, 20 g total fat, 8 g saturated fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 4 g carbohydrate, 24 g protein. *

Coconut Tom Yum

"The Raw Truth: The Art of Loving Foods," by Jeremy Safron and Renee Underkoffler (available for $19.95 online at

2 young coconuts
2 basil leaves
6 sprigs oregano
6 sprigs cilantro
6 sprigs parsley
1 Thai chili pepper

Drain water from coconuts. Chop open coconuts. Scoop out soft meat and blend in food processor with coconut water. Add herbs and spices and blend until smooth. Serves 2.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 250 calories, 11 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 280 mg sodium. *

Asia de Cuba Tunapica

1-1/2 pounds ahi
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon canola oil
1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds
1/4 cup currants
1/4 cup shredded coconut
1 tablespoon chives
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
4 ounces grated ginger
Salt and pepper to taste
24 wonton skins, fried until crispy in canola oil

Cut the tuna into small dice and place in a mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients except chips and gently toss.

To plate: Divide the tuna into 6 portions. Stack 1/4 of each portion on a chip and stack 4 pieces per serving. Serves 6.

Down-Under Spinach and Coconut Soup

"Terrific Pacific Cookbook," by Anya Von Bremzen and John Welchman (Workman Publishing, $24.95)

3-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1-1/2 cups chopped leeks, white part only
1-1/2 pounds fresh spinach, trimmed, rinsed and dried
4-1/2 cups chicken stock
1 medium all-purpose potato, cooked, peeled and diced
1-1/4 cups fresh or canned unsweetened coconut milk, well-stirred
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy pot over medium-low heat. Add garlic and leeks and cook, covered, for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add spinach and stir for 3 minutes. Stir in the stock, add the potato and simmer for about 5 minutes.

Transfer the soup to a food processor and process briefly, in batches if necessary. Pour the soup back into the pan, add the coconut milk and bring to a simmer.

Melt the remaining 1-1/2 tablespoons of butter in a small skillet over low heat. Add the coriander, paprika and cayenne and stir for 30 seconds. Stir in lemon juice.

Ladle the soup into bowls and swirl a small spoonful of the spice-lemon butter into each bowl. Serves 6.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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