Have Everything, Will Travel: How The Coconut Conquered The World

February 13th, 2021
Have Everything, Will Travel: How The Coconut Conquered The World

As Gordon announced recently, some of you will be heading to Thailand in January next year, Wheel & Anchor’s first LiveAways destination. 

You’ll be soaking up absurd amounts of sunshine, loosening all those knotted muscles you acquired in 2020 by taking endless massages, exploring an utterly fascinating country that truly feels half a world away from Europe and the Americas - and, of course, stuffing your faces with some of the best food in Southeast Asia (which is saying a lot).

You’re also going to encounter a fun way to quench your thirst that might, very briefly, fill you with utter terror.

In Costa Rica, I got to experience the basic version of it. Your guide (in this case, my Costa Rican girlfriend) leads you to a stall on the corner of the street that’s overflowing with insanely colourful fruit and vegetables. A request is made - and suddenly, the shopkeeper reaches down and pulls out a huge, shiny machete. 

Opening a coconut with a machete

Opening a coconut with a machete

This is normal. Please do not be alarmed. Trust his wisdom here. There is no other sensible way to get into a coconut.

Once the victim is in position, the knife descends three times, chop! Chop! WHACK! - the third blow knocking off most of the top of the coconut. Then it’s set right way up, and a hole is whittled into the top. A plastic straw is poked into it, and hey presto! One of the best drinks you’ll have in your life, in almost completely biodegradable form (yes, the straw is a problem - which is why environmentally-conscious travellers have taken to carrying their own telescopic steel straws).

Once you’re done drinking, go back to the vendor, and with a couple more blows of his machete he’ll whack it into quarters, so you can get at the creamy coconut flesh inside.

This is the crude version of tucking into a drinkable, edible coconut. The fancier method, which you can see in many places on the streets of Thailand and involves a smaller machete and a knife that bends to one side, is something like a magic trick.

If all this seems like a lot of effort to get into what appears to be a severely over-engineered piece of food, you haven’t drunk fresh coconut water yet. It’s like the lightest, most delicate cordial you’ve ever tasted, but with a nutty tang that elevates it above anything an artificial sweetener can achieve. 

And if you’ve never seen it - no, it’s not the same thing as coconut milk. That’s a milky, fatty, high-calorie substance made from the kernel, and a few draughts of that will make you feel sluggish enough to sleep the rest of the day away. Coconut water is clear, tangy, rich with electrolytes...and anything but enervating. There’s a reason it’s now being turned into an international sports drink - even though it probably shouldn’t qualify as one.

That liquid treat isn’t there for humans, of course. Coconuts couldn’t care less that your throat gets parched. It’s actually there to ensure a fledgling coconut has everything it needs to start growing, even if it starts its life in a bone-dry part of the world that’s hundreds, maybe thousands of miles from its parent tree.

Coconut palms in the sun

Coconut palms in the sun

Coconuts are designed to travel the world. This is a rather odd thing to say about a piece of fruit (yep, it’s not a nut, despite the name), but that’s how coconuts originally spread from their birthplace in the South Pacific. That thick, fibrous casing is incredibly tough, allowing it to bounce as far as ten metres when it falls from the tree - and it’s waterproof, so it can float. 

Put these things together, including the fact that most palm trees are found by the water’s edge, and you have a recipe for the kind of long-distance travel that food rarely achieves without human intervention. A coconut can travel the ocean currents for around 110 days and so, incredibly, can cover up to 3,000 miles without sinking.

Once it hits land (and sometimes beforehand), it’s ready to germinate through one of the three (previously sealed shut) holes in its top. The green shoot pokes up into the air, using the coconut as its foundation until all the water and nutrients within it have dissolved into the ground - by which time, it should be able to handle anything this new environment can throw at it.

This is how the coconut conquered the world - or rather, the parts of it warm enough to sustain it. Coconuts like sunshine. Very practical and sensible plants, on the whole.

It has also thoroughly won over the world of humans. The palm tree, as I’m sure you’re enormously aware when you see the photos that accompany this article, evokes a sunkissed, blissed-out tropical vibe that is hard to resist. And since palms are so hardy and - climate allowing - will grow almost anywhere (at least 80 countries, at present), they’re widely used for striking decorative purposes. For example, what would Los Angeles be without its famous palm-lined avenues? Unfortunately, its residents are starting to find out.

Elsewhere, the full use-range of the coconut palm and its fruit are revealed. It’s unusual in that humanity has found a use for virtually every single part of the plant throughout history - and entire economies, ancient and modern, owe their existence to it.

Take the husk or shell of the coconut. What good is it for, other than for pretending to be King Arthur’s horse? (And yes, Monty Python: coconuts really do “migrate” - by sea, as previously mentioned). 

Let’s take the coir, the fibrous hairy exterior. It’s proven to be staggeringly useful in all sorts of ways, partly because of its water-resistant and buoyant properties. Want a fishing net that won’t absorb so much water it breaks when you pull it in? Want a new brush, or a doormat, or a tough mattress for animal bedding? Coir is easy to produce, entirely biodegradable, and comes with a side-order of delicious coconutty treats.

Coconut coir used for fertilizer

Coconut coir used for fertilizer

 

The coconut is so useful that it’s reached the kind of mythological status that comes with a lot of questionable wellness claims. Yes, coconut water is a healthy drink - but no, it isn’t an excellent replacement for saline solution or blood plasma when you’re low on either (not enough sodium; a bit too much calcium and potassium). 

And yes, coconut meat is a rich source of medium chain fatty acids, which have been linked to endurance training in athletes and mild antimicrobial benefits - but no, consuming nothing but coconut won’t bulk you up like post-supersoldier-serum Steve Rogers (quite the opposite, probably, because it is overflowing with calories). 

But even if coconut came with no exceptional health benefits, you’d still eat tons of it because you’re in Thailand, where most dishes contain it. Along with the taste of it, it’s not hard to see why it’s so popular for cooking purposes. You can dry it into flakes, or grate the copra (meat) to produce coconut milk, render it into jelly, oil or butter, process it into a type of gluten-free flour - and so much more. 

But the simplest way is always the best way. Starting the day with fresh fruit juice and a coconut is a habit you’ll acquire in Thailand that will be difficult to shake off. Drinking fresh coconut water, then getting a long spoon to scrape out the creamy coconut meat, is the breakfast-starter of kings. 

Or if it’s really hot out, try a coconut smoothie: nothing but coconut meat and water (or shaved ice) blended together with a pinch of salt. Perfect!  

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