When I lived in the Caribbean, I was often awakened by street noises shortly after sunrise. I would hurry down the hill, half asleep, to buy meat “pâtés” (spicy turnovers). A local woman made two or three dozen of these as well as coconut-filled ones each morning, which she sold briskly as soon as they came out of the oven. Pâté in hand, I would stroll over to the harbor, where down-island boats along the waterfront displayed mounds of fresh green coconuts for sale—the rest of my island breakfast.
Wielding a machete, the boatman would chop through the outer, green husk, slicing off the end of the coconut with the flourish of a Japanese steak house chef. Through this hole I could drink its soothing juice, cheaper than bottled water. The boatman then cut away all the outer husk, spinning the coconut in one hand and whacking away at it with the machete until the luscious, soft interior pulp was revealed, glistening in the already bright morning sun. The smooth, gelatinous texture of the green coconut always reminded me of custards I ate as a child here in the Lowcountry, and, indeed, green coconuts lend themselves well to custards. Often the custards are baked in the shells, not only in the Caribbean, home of the early settlers of Carolina, but also in Indochina and Indonesia, where the coconut palm originated.

Cocos nucifera now flourishes throughout the tropical world and is a major source of food for a third of the world’s population. Though green coconuts are seldom available outside the tropics, the mature brown seeds of these drupes are available year-round in most parts of the country. We Sandlappers, with a long history of involvement in the spice and slave trades (and, hence, with strong African and Asian influences in our cuisine), have taken more readily to coconuts than have Europeans, who tend to use them as almond substitutes. I have eaten the gelatinous pulp of unripe, green almonds in Italy, but never have I seen a coconut in a market there, and I lived in the great port city of Genoa.

The rich interior of the mature nut has the most intense flavor. More than 200 years ago Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who had been raised in the West Indies, wrote down her receipt for “cocoanut torte,” which was really delicious macaroons to be made from these tropical nuts. But even today coconuts stay out of the European tradition. With its great harbor and Caribbean connection, Charleston led the way for coconut cookery.

Verta Grosvenor is a South Carolinian granddaughter of a slave. In Vibration Cooking she tells of two ways black people here have used coconut—in a custard pie and with sweet potatoes. The recipes are flawless, and I have prepared them many times, but I have adapted her ideas to my own taste, using fresh coconut.

I have found that I can still use the grated coconut from which the milk has been squeezed in recipes calling for shredded coconut with no loss of quality and often more flavor than store-bought.

Canned coconut milk is certainly readily obtainable today, with our increasing Asian populations, but it is so much fun making your own, I wonder why more people don’t do it. Most of these recipes come from the Caribbean-American sweet tradition, but coconuts lend themselves well to rice and chicken dishes, and also to seafood and meats, as any Southeast Asian or Brazilian cook knows. Fresh peach and coconut chutney, though stylistically Lowcountry, is a cross-cultural inspiration.

When you’re buying fresh coconuts (fall and winter are the best seasons), look for dark-skinned ones with shiny, clean “eyes” (3 dots on one end). They should be heavy and full of coconut water (not to be confused with coconut milk; recipe follows). Puncture two of the three eyes and drain the water into a container. You should at least taste the water, if not drink it, to be sure that the coconut is fresh. The water should taste sweet and clean, not musty or sour. To get at the meat, crack the shell. Some people prefer to place the nut in a 350° oven for 20 minutes, but I simply tap it around its equator with a hammer until it cracks into two pieces. (If you have a patio or sidewalk nearby, you can also throw it against the ground, monkey-style, but be careful of flying fragments of shell.) Then pry the meat away from the shell, unless you have a rotary coconut grater from India, available in Asian markets, which grates the meat while it is still in the shell. The thin brown skin can be pared off with a vegetable peeler, but it is not necessary to remove it if the meat is to be used only for making coconut milk or cream.

An average coconut will yield 4 to 6 cups of grated meat.

In this section