The coconut is possibly the most important and substantial source of food and materials in Vanuatu and many other tropical islands. Every part of the coconut tree can be used, whether for food, to make utensils or as building materials. This gift of nature has absolutely zero waste.
Regarding its nutritional value, there have many debates on whether or not coconut is good for you. Classified as a saturated fat, to me, it is natural, organic, essential in Vanuatu and full of goodness!
To give an overview of the uses of the coconut tree in the islands, lets start with the trunk. This is a soft wood, but it can be used as a building material to make houses, fences, posts and furniture. Moving up to the leaves, these can be woven to make baskets, fans and mats. The inner core of the leaf is hard, and once stripped of the green leaves, the long, thin hard cores are collected to make island brooms. The heart of the coconut tree is at the top of the tree. It is about one metre long and you can only eat about 30-60cm of it. Its most popular recipe is the ‘millionaire’s salad’ so called because you need to cut down a whole coconut tree for that one piece, ‘the heart’.
Moving to the nut, coconuts can be eaten through their three different stages. The first stage is the green coconut. This is still young and sweet. The husk is green, the flesh is soft and the water is sweet.
These are drinking coconuts and they are delicious. The next stage is the dry coconut. By this time the husk has dried up and turned brown. The flesh is hard and the water is not so sweet, but still drinkable. At this stage, coconuts are used to make coconut cream, soaps, oils, copra and fuel.
The last stage is the sprouting coconut – ‘Navara’. The coconut has fallen to the ground and developed roots that are clutching to the earth. On the top, a green stalk is starting to flourish into another coconut tree. In the inside, the coconut flesh has become hard and porous and decreased in size and the water has turned into what we call ‘Navara’. It is like a coconut marshmallow and it is edible. This can be eaten as a snack. I like to make a salad with it using coconut oil, crispy garlic and onions, fresh coriander and cumin seeds.
Once the coconut has been eaten, there is still the shell, which can be made into drinking vessels or bowls. The husks of the coconut are used to start fires and to plant orchids.
In island life nothing is wasted. It is a refreshing concept that everyone should practice.
Today I had six dry coconuts. I grated five and sliced one. With the sliced coconut, I made a great snack, ‘roasted and salted’ coconut. With the grated coconuts, I made coconut lollies, coconut cream, coconut oil and dried coconut for baking.
To grate the coconut, you will need a plank of wood and a serrated blade that you can find in most island shops. They cost about 200vt. You will also need a short bush knife. Cut the dry coconut in half and keep the water in a separate bowl. Start grating the coconut using the blade into a separate bowl until complete.
In a separate bowl, mix together the grated coconut and the coconut water, mixing well for about a minute. Using your hands, squeeze the cream into another bowl, leaving the ‘Makas’ (flesh) separate. Squeeze until all the water is out of the grated coconut flesh. That is coconut cream.
Place the leftover grated flesh in a flat oven tray and roast until golden brown. The wonderful tropical island smell will carry out into the house and you will feel truly in paradise; I feel as though I was in Santo again! You can use the roasted coconut for baking cakes, muffins, slices and to incorporate in many other dishes.
To make the lollies, you will need 350 grams of sugar. Melt the sugar at low heat in a heavy based pan until it becomes caramel. As soon as it is caramel, add 250ml of coconut cream and stir until well combined. Let it cook for about one minute. Add some of the grated flesh, about a ¼ cup, to the mix to give it texture. Let the mix cool down until it is nearly set.
Once cooled, take a teaspoon full in your hand, roll it into balls and place on a tray to let it set. You can then coat some with the roasted coconut. Remember to let it cool down before you touch it with your bare hands, it is very hot!
To make oil from the coconut cream, let the cream sit overnight so the cream separates from the water. Scoop the cream out into another pot and bring the cream to the boil. When it boils, the cream will separate from the oil and you can then scoop the remaining cream off from your now, coconut oil. Magic!