Coconuts grow on a tall palm tree (Cocos nucifera) that is salt tolerant, so it thrives in delta areas and along coastlines. The fruit has a hard husk and is lined with sweet white crisp flesh that has a high oil content. In Burma the word for “coconut” is ohn thi. Coconut is used mainly for sweet dishes in Burma, although coconut milk is also an essential ingredient in several noodle dishes, including Coconut Sauce Noodles and Egg Noodles with Pork in Coconut Sauce.
Coconut flesh can be grated or finely sliced into strips and used fresh, toasted, or fried as a sweet topping. When buying a coconut, hold it in your hand. It should feel heavy and should have coconut water inside. To crack it, apply a heavy screwdriver point to the “eye” of the coconut, a flattened spot on the husk, then tap the other end firmly with a hammer. The coconut should crack open. Catch the coconut water in a bowl. It is a delicious, slightly sweet clear liquid.
If you have a coconut scraper, use it to scrape out the flesh. Otherwise, improvise a scraper. The easiest way is to take a metal bottle cap with a wavy sharp edge, flatten it slightly to make it easier to hold, and then use the edge to scrape out the strips of fresh coconut. Use the flesh to make coconut milk or eat it fresh, or use as a topping for cakes or other desserts. Because of its high oil content, fresh coconut flesh does not keep well, so it is often sold in North America as frozen grated coconut or desiccated coconut shreds. (The latter are often sweetened. The sweetened form is not a substitute for unsweetened grated coconut, fresh or frozen or desiccated.) To toast fresh coconut strands, place in a heavy skillet over medium heat and keep it moving on the pan so it changes color but does not scorch. Remove when just turning a pale brown. To toast frozen grated coconut, chop it into small pieces and put it in a wide heavy skillet set over medium heat. Stir it with a wooden spatula as it heats; the ice will melt and the water sizzle and then evaporate, and then the coconut will start to toast on the hot surface. Keep stirring, so that as it starts to brown you get an even toasting with no scorching. Once the coconut is an even golden brown, turn it out into a bowl to cool, then use in recipes as directed.
To make coconut milk: The flesh of the coconut is grated, then mashed with warm water (most easily in a food processor; traditionally by hand), squeezed, and pressed. The warm water emulsifies the oil and washes it out of the flesh. This water-oil mixture is what is called coconut milk. It is a largely saturated fat that will become solid if refrigerated. The process of adding warm water, kneading the flesh, and then pressing out the liquid is repeated a number of times. The “first pressing” yields the richest, thickest coconut milk (in Burmese, ohn no); the “second pressing” is less rich. Canned coconut milk is a reasonable substitute. I find Mae Ploy and Aroy D brands from Thailand the most reliable. Make sure it is unsweetened and contains nothing but water and coconut milk. Often canned milk separates into thicker, oilier, almost solid coconut cream and thinner, more watery liquid beneath. (You can assist this process by placing a can of coconut milk in the refrigerator for half an hour.) Use the thick upper layer when “thick coconut milk” is called for, or use first-pressing coconut milk.
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