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By Shu Han Lee (@mummyicancook)     12 Aug 2016

Southeast Asians have long looked to coconut for its versatility, tastiness and nutritional value. Now the rest of the world is catching on

It’s hard not to come across coconut on the menus of the latest vegan cafe or fusion restaurant. It’s one of the trendiest ingredients at the moment, but this ‘hipster’ fruit has been playing a central role in the traditional cooking of Southeast Asia for centuries.

I grew up guzzling the cool refreshing water inside a young coconut, nibbling on sweet treats made with coconut milk or covered in grated coconut, and eating spicy curries laced with coconut cream. This versatile fruit can be used to produce a vast range of ingredients that take both sweet and savory dishes to another level. Inside a young coconut is a naturally sweet, clear liquid we call coconut water. This is the finest isotonic drink nature has given us—a chilled glass of fresh coconut water after a workout is one of the best things you can have to rehydrate and replace lost electrolytes and minerals. By that same reasoning, it also makes for a fantastic hangover cure.

In Southeast Asia, many hawkers simply serve a whole coconut with its top hacked off and a straw (and sometimes a colorful cocktail umbrella). My favorite part comes after I’ve finished my drink, though. I use a spoon to scrape the sweet coconut ‘jelly’ off the inside walls. If you’re not fortunate enough to live in a tropical country, your best bet is the health-food shop for fresh coconuts, or if you’re desperate, a carton of coconut water.

While coconut water is delicious on its own and needs nothing more, its mild refreshing sweetness also lends itself well to other preparations. Try adding coconut water to your breakfast smoothie for natural sweetness and an isotonic boost; I like the combination of spinach, cucumber, lemon and coconut water. A less common approach is to use coconut water in savory cooking. Thit heo kho, for instance, is a traditional Vietnamese dish that involves braising pork belly in a broth based on coconut water and fish sauce.

As a coconut matures, the kernel becomes more solid and fibrous. You can no longer find coconut water nor jelly inside its now brown and hairy husk, but instead, firmer fleshy coconut meat. This flesh forms the basis of delicious coconut derivatives such as coconut milk. Grated coconut flesh is soaked in hot water and the liquid squeezed through a layer of cheesecloth to extract the white liquid we call coconut milk. Coconut cream is thicker and richer than coconut milk, and naturally separates and floats to the top upon refrigeration. Of course, in most countries where fresh coconuts are unavailable, coconut milk and coconut cream will simply come ready prepared in cans.

For those who can’t tolerate dairy, coconut milk makes for a perfect lactose-free substitute for milk or cream in sweet recipes. It’s often the creamy ingredient of choice in traditional Southeast Asian desserts. You’ll also see coconut milk popping up on the ingredients list for many savory Thai, Malay, South Indian and Caribbean stews and curries. You can also add a fragrant twist to plain rice by making the Malaysian classic nasi lemak—simply replace half the water with coconut milk and add a generous pinch of salt. Coconut cream is best saved for finishing off dishes—stir a spoonful through a spiced creamy soup or pile a dollop over banana pancakes.

And last of all, you have coconut oil. Like coconut milk and cream, coconut oil is derived from coconut meat. Depending on the starting point of the process, you get two main grades: refined coconut oil (simply labeled ‘coconut oil’) or virgin coconut oil. One of the misconceptions propagated on the Internet is that only virgin coconut oils are healthy, while refined coconut oils are harmful. But with the exception of hydrogenated coconut oil, this is—as I described—a misconception. That said, refined coconut oil does have a lower concentration of nutrients and antioxidants, and lacks the intense fragrance found in virgin coconut oil (though that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re cooking for friends who need getting used to the overwhelming flavor of coconut). Virgin coconut oil, of course, is the prized superfood that’s making waves in the health industry. It’s rich in saturated fat, which—contradictory to old beliefs—is not harmful to health; and in fact, the medium-length fatty acid chains found in coconut oil provide numerous heart-healthy, antifungal and even digestive benefits. Its health benefits aside, (virgin) coconut oil’s high smoke point and wonderful aroma make it a great option for stir-fries or for sautéing with spice/curry pastes. I’ve even come across creative recipes that make use of coconut oil rather than butter in cakes.

So whether it’s at that vegan cafe or in your own humble little kitchen, this fantastic all-rounder fruit is definitely one to try.

View our photo gallery for some insider tips and tricks for cooking with coconut from chefs at The Westin Hyderabad Mindspace, Sheraton Bali Kuta and The St. Regis Mumbai.

What’s your favorite use of coconut? Tweet and let us know to @momentumtravels.

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