Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Coconuts

It’s January in Brooklyn and I find myself dreaming of warm sunshine and aquamarine waters. There are few images more evocative of the tropics than swaying palm trees lining an expanse of white sand – but the hypnotic beauty of the coconut palm is just one of its many attributes. From coconut water to coconut oil, from the coconut fiber that lines your window box planters to the coconut milk in your curry, the coconut palm, aptly called “The Tree of Life” for its usefulness, is a truly remarkable plant.

A Brief History

The coconut palm is probably native to Southeast Asia, although there is some minor speculation that the tree may have tropical American origins. Recent genetic research, however, has unveiled two distinct areas of the origin of the tree’s cultivation – one in the Pacific basin and one in the Indian Ocean basin. Pacific cultivars were probably first grown in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, while Indian Ocean cultivars had their likely origins in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

As science writer Diana Lutz points out, the cultivation origins of the coconut palm points to prehistoric trade routes and colonization. Ancient Austronesians likely brought coconuts with them on their trade routes to Indian Ocean sites that connected Southeast Asia to Madagascar and East Asia. In later times, Portuguese traders carried coconuts to West Africa, and finally to the Caribbean and South America. The first mainland US coconuts were grown in Florida in the 19th century.

Factual Nibbles

  • According to Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food, Marco Polo came across coconuts in Java, Indonesia in the 13th century. 
  • Also according to Davidson, 15th century Portuguese traders began using the word coco to describe to the coconut, referring to a skull or a head – because the three eyes of the nut were said to resemble a monkey’s face. 
  • Coconut crabs are giant, creepy crabs that feed primarily on coconuts but also maybe on Amelia Earhart and kittens. They are considered an invasive pest in Hawaii.
  • According to the Library of Congress, during World War II and the Vietnam War, naturally sterile coconut water was used in place of IV fluid, which was often in short supply.


Coconuts are the product of the Cocos nucifera tree. Trees can be as large as 30 meters (about 100 ft) in height, but dwarf cultivars may be significantly shorter. Technically “dry drupes,” not true fruits, coconuts have a smooth outer shell (the exocarp), which is typically green or yellow, a fibrous husk (the mesocarp) and a hairy, brown shell (the endocarp) that surrounds the meat of the coconut as well as the coconut water contained inside. (Here’s a picture.) In the US, we commonly see only the brown, round endocarp sold in grocery stores, although tropical markets may sell the entire coconut. There are over 80 varieties of the coconut palm, with different cultivars grown for different products – including coconut oil, coconut meat (copra), coconut water and coconut coir (fiber). Coconuts are grown on farms across the tropics; Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Brazil and Sri Lanka are the top global producers.


Like most tropical products, fresh coconuts are available year-round.

Environmental Impact

As we discussed in our cooking oils post, coconut cultivation, while not as damaging as palm oil production, does have some environmental tolls. Maddie Oatman, writing in Mother Jones, pointed out that coconut farmers are often paid very little and exposed to dangerous pesticides. (Coconuts can also be quite dangerous to harvest.) A Stanford study done in 2010 found that coconut palms decrease soil nutrients, which may alter the feeding habits of animals and birds. Look for organic, fair trade coconut products to ameliorate some of these problems. Of course, if you are committed to local agriculture, consuming coconut products that typically come from the other side of the globe may not be the most sustainable option. (*Check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below, for more information.)


The coconut palm is incredibly important as a foodstuff across the globe. The most common coconut products are:

  • Dried coconut meat (copra) and desiccated coconut. Copra comes from the dried white coconut meat. It’s high in oil and low in water content. Desiccated coconut is also made from coconut meat. It is dried and sieved into different grades of fineness. Desiccated coconut comes in sweetened and unsweetened versions, so be sure to consult your recipe before you purchase it. 
  • Coconut oil. As we discussed in our cooking oils post, coconut oil comes in a couple of different varieties. Virgin (or extra virgin) coconut oil can be extracted from fresh coconuts, called “wet milling,” or expeller pressed from dried coconut meat. Most commercial coconut oil, which is frequently referred to as RBD (refined, bleached, deodorized) coconut oil, is made from copra, the dried meat of the coconut. Virgin coconut oil is solid at room temperature and white in color. Depending on how it is processed, it can have a mild to strong coconut flavor. Refined coconut oil is odorless and has a much higher smoke point than virgin oil. Here is a nice guide to selecting a good coconut oil
  • Coconut milk/cream. Coconut milk and cream are thick, sweet-ish liquids, typically made from shredded coconut meat. They are produced by pouring hot or boiling water over coconut meat, then squeezing the liquid out. (More water produces coconut milk, less water coconut cream.) You can easily make your own
  • Coconut sugar. Also called “palm sugar,” coconut sugar is made from the sap collected from the coconut palm tree flower bud. 
  • Coconut flour is made by grinding dried, defatted coconut meat. It’s becoming more common as an alternative flour as the gluten-free movement catches fire.
  • Coconut water is the naturally sweet, clear-ish liquid harvested from the inside of young, green coconuts. It can be found either shelf-stable or fresh in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. 

Nutrition and effects on the body

Virgin coconut oil has, of late, become the darling of the natural food world, purported to help with weight loss, oral health and even Alzheimer’s disease. It is 92 percent saturated fat so go easy! Coconut meat is high in fiber and manganese (and saturated fat), and contains a good amount of iron, copper, folate, magnesium, zinc and selenium. Coconut water is marketed as a natural sports drink because it is high in potassium and other electrolytes. 

What to Do with It and Cooking

Coconut is an important component of many cultures’ cuisines – from Southeast and South Asian to Pacific Island, to Caribbean and South American. It is equally delicious in sweet as in savory dishes. Coconut milk is used in Thai, Malaysian and Caribbean curries and in candies and stews in Brazil. You can even find coconut milk yogurt (or make your own) and coconut milk ice cream. Coconut meat is used in Indian desserts and chutneys and in myriad other ways in tropical cuisines around the world. Coconut oil can be used as a substitute for any oil in baking and frying and is frequently used in vegan desserts as a substitute for butter because it has a similar richness. As you might guess, coconut pairs deliciously with its tropical brethren. On the sweet side, think bananas, chocolate, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, papaya and mango. On the savory – try pairing coconut with cilantro, seafood (especially shellfish and flaky white fish) and chiles. Coconut water is delicious on its own, but I also love to blend it into smoothies in place of juice or plain water.

Pro Tips

Ever wondered about the easiest way to get the meat out of a coconut? Try freezing it first – then all you need is a hammer! Here’s a video on how to do it.


Store dried or desiccated coconut in a cool, dry place, or in the fridge. Coconut oil should be stored in a cool, dark place to avoid rancidity. 


Coconut-y Tropical Granola

Despite my Brooklyn pedigree, I’m a newbie to granola making, but I’ve discovered how much fun it is to make my own! I like to mix up what I put in my granola, and you should too. Feel free to substitute different fruit, nuts, seeds and spices. My recipe is based on The Kitchn’s master granola recipe, which also has great tips for homemade granola making. I like to use large dried coconut flakes, also called coconut “chips” because I prefer the texture of the larger flakes. Feel free to substitute smaller flaked coconut – just be sure you buy the unsweetened kind. (Note: do not use quick-cooking oats as they don’t toast up the way you want for good homemade granola.)

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (see note above)
1 cup sliced almonds (untoasted)
12 cup sesame seeds (untoasted)
112 teaspoons kosher salt
12 teaspoon cardamom
12 cup extra-virgin coconut oil, melted
12 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup dried unsweetened coconut flakes or chips
34 cup dried papaya or pineapple (or a combination), chopped
14 cup golden raisins


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Mix the oats, almonds, sesame seeds, salt and cardamom in a large mixing bowl. Add the coconut oil, honey and vanilla and mix well (I use my hands) until the wet ingredients are evenly distributed with the dry.
  3. Bake the mixture on a sheet pan for about 30 minutes, and then add the coconut flakes or chips. Continue baking for another 10 minutes, or until the mixture is fragrant, toasty and golden brown. For clumpy granola, do not stir. For un-clumpy granola, stir the mixture a few times while baking.
  4. Remove from the oven and pour the mixture into a bowl. Add the dried papaya or pineapple and raisins and stir gently to combine. Cool completely.

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)