Coconut is an abundant and generally under-utilized local resource here in Kauai. The fruit of the coconut can be used in numerous ways and has different properties depending on the stage of ripeness. Generally, we would refer to two kinds of coco: young (or green) and mature, but there are several significant stages within these broad descriptions.
The Maturation Stages of the Coconut
As the coconut matures, it’s contents go from a liquid state to a solid one.
- Coconut Water; At this stage, there is no meat in the nut, it’s all liquid and often so full there is no sloshing when the nut is shook. This is the stage where commercial coconut water (sometimes “juice”) is extracted. Outside husk is bright green and the nut feels dense and heavy. The shell (inside the husk) is a light brown and not very hard at all.
- Jelly Meat; The meat is beginning to form on the inside of the shell as a kind of gel. The water is plentiful and good.
- Spoon Meat; The meat now is soft enough to spoon out of the shell–it makes a great snack at this point and we sometimes make a surprisingly delicious appetizer/treat called “coconut bacon” with the meat at this stage. The nut is beginning to darken a little, but it’s still green. The shell is darker brown and fairly hard. The water is still excellent.
- Firm Meat; The meat is thicker and harder now, takes a bit of work with a stout spoon to scoop it out. At this stage, the meat is perfect for pies and desserts, as it will have some oil content and will blend to a smooth consistency. The volume of water is much lower now, a bit thin and less flavorful, but usable. The nut is green with a yellow/brown cast.
- Firm-Mature; The nut is now too old for coco water extraction–there will be water in it, but it will be small in volume and tasteless. The meat at this stage is thick and firm, but not fibrous, and slightly sweet with a mild coconut flavor. It is the perfect stage for chutneys or in stir-frys and curries as a vegetable. The outside of the nut is greenish-brown or gold and the shell is dark brown and very hard.
- Mature Coconut; At this point the nut is mature and ready to fall from the tree and sprout. The meat is thick, hard and sweet, with a full coconut flavor. This is the stage at which coconuts are used for oil production, the moisture content is low and the oil content is high. We use the nut at this stage for making coconut milk, and it’s also perfect for macaroons and toasted coconut for baking or garnish. The outside of the nut is brown, and the nut feels light and dry. There is a small amount of tasteless water inside.
- Sprouted Coconut; Coconuts will sprout readily after they mature, and you will sometimes open a sprouted one after it has germinated but not emerged from the shell. The cavity is getting filled with a spongy mass, which is edible and some people quite like it. The meat can still be used, but the sprout is consuming it, so it will be getting thinner. There is typically no water present.
Coconut trees in residential and public settings need to be trimmed regularly because both the fronds and the nuts present a significant hazard when they fall. The trees also look neater with the old fronds removed. Coconut trimming is hard, dangerous work and quite a few trimmers are kept busy on the island with it. There are many thousands of trees to be trimmed as no resort would be without many of these most emblematic of tropical plants.
One byproduct of trimming trees is the green, immature nuts, and although most of them are probably just being composted in county greenwaste facilities, some trimmers sell the green nuts as a sideline. We take delivery of a load of green nuts from a tree-trimming friend every week for our own use here, and it is an inexpensive resource even then. The one mature coconut tree we have on the property we don’t harvest green, but let the nuts mature for use in making coconut milk. In coming years, we will have our own sources for the green nuts as some of our young trees mature (it takes 7-10 years from sprouting for a tree to produce nuts).
Storage and Spoilage
Green coconuts, once cut from the tree will not keep long. The Thai young coconuts you often seen in stores have been partially husked and shrink-wrapped to help them keep longer. We don’t bother with this kind of thing; the nuts just sit on the ground for a few days waiting to be opened. Wet weather will hasten their spoilage.
The water is also quite attractive to micro-organisms that will spoil it quickly once extracted. Refrigerated, it will keep for a few days. The meat will go sour quickly as well and so green coconuts are used within a week and the meat/water is used within a day or two after extraction from the nut. This is one reason the packaged coco water you can buy in stores is so different from the fresh stuff–pasteurization, stabilizers and preservatives are necessary to create a commercial product from such an ephemeral food.
A big factor in the keeping ability of the nuts is cracking of the shell; often the green coconuts fall from a great height (coconut trees can easily be 80 feet tall, but trees that are harvested for nuts are more typically are 30′-50′ tall.) and even though they are well protected, the green ones are dense and the shell soft. We look for signs of splittage in the husk, and you can see the green husk going bad and turning brown in damaged nuts. There’s little point in opening such a nut, as the contents will likely be unusable, but with experience you can tell whether a green nut is OK or not.
Mature coconuts are usually not harvested, but just allowed to fall (dangerously!) from the tree. Sometimes we help them down with a long bamboo pole. They will keep pretty good, but they will go one of two ways after a couple of weeks: sprout or spoil. You won’t be able to tell from the outside, so when you are opening mature coconuts, you should give it a sniff after it’s been cracked to make sure it has not gone off. Sprouted nuts can be used if they have not been growing too long.
Here is a quick list of basic and often-used preparations using coconuts:
- Coco water beverages
- Raw Pies
- Raw/Vegan Ice Cream
- Coconut Bacon
- Coconut Milk: soups, ice creams, sauces and curries
- Coconut Jerky
We plan to publish some of these recipes as we get time to write them up.