In traditional tropical climates, especially along the coastal regions of Asia, coconuts form the basis of most culinary traditions. Most common of the traditional coconut products is homemade coconut milk made from grating the fresh coconut and extracting the milk naturally by hand or with the help of cloth. This can be made in minutes and adds a rich and satisfying basis to countless Asian recipes. If an abundance of mature coconuts were available then this same fresh coconut milk could be further heated and evaporated until a layer of coconut oil was produced and scooped off to be stored for cooking and deep frying. In Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and tropical India, coconut oil was the only vegetable oil used in cooking until the start of the 20th century. The roasted coconut paste byproduct after removing the oil were always kept and formed the basis of many delicious curry recipes as well.
Also popular was the harvesting of the coconut sap that flows from the young coconut flower if cut, and this liquid can be quickly evaporated over a low heat to produce coconut sugar or left to naturally ferment to make a coconut wine or coconut vinegar. This complex natural sugar from coconut flower sap and several other palm species also formed the principle sugars available throughout Southeast Asia and was used only sparingly, mainly for sweets and desserts enjoyed on festive occasions only. When these basic coconut products were added to the dietary staples of rice, fish and seasonal herbs and vegetables then it formed a healthy traditional diet that was far superior to the current versions which have contributed to rising obesity and chronic metabolic disease throughout the tropics.
The modern tropical Asian diet now has an overabundance of processed white sugars and sweetened drinks, processed polyunsaturated vegetable oils and refined grain products that were previously nonexistent. Thankfully in recent years we have seen a resurgence in the interest in the range of products made from the humble coconut tree and modern processing technologies have allowed for the development of new coconut-based superfoods to be enjoyed both in the tropics and the world over.
COOKING WITH COCONUT OIL
There are 2 main types of coconut oil that have now entered the kitchens of the world due to their superior health attributes that we have written about extensively but can be briefly summarized as follows:
- Rich in Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT’s) that support many bodily functions inclusing energy, satiation, metabolism and weight loss.
- Resistant to oxidation and thus do not contribute to toxic free radical formation, inflammation and arteriosclerosis as does cooking with polyunsaturated Omega 6 vegetable oils.
- Low allergenic and are suitable for a dairy free, vegetarian and raw foods diet.
- Supporting a dietary shift to a low calorie high fat or ketogenic diet
While many people add a teaspoon of 2 of coconut oil to drinks and smoothies, natural health practitioners and chefs recommend to replace processed polyunsaturated vegetable oils with coconut oil as far as possible for all high heat cooking in the kitchen. Most popular is Virgin Coconut Oil made from fresh coconuts by cold-pressing of the coconut meat and filtration to produce a completely clear oil with a sweet fresh coconut aroma. Next, Refined Coconut Oil is made from dried copra (coconut meat that is traditionally sun dried by farmers) and sent to coconut oil refineries for oil extraction where it is refined, bleached and deodorized. This also has several methods with the high technology 100% physical extraction method being far superior as it uses no chemicals in the process and a handful of these refiners worldwide also have organic processing certification. Because the brown outer skin of the coconut is also used to make Refined Coconut Oil then the oil has a slight yellowish colour as compared to Virgin Coconut Oil where the brown skin is removed before pressing and produces a clear transparent oil. All forms of coconut oil will harden at temperatures below 24 degrees Celsius and one need only soak the bottle in hot water to liquify the coconut oil.
Virgin Coconut Oil is very stable and can withstand high cooking temperatures and is suitable for sautéing, baking, roasting and frying. As it has a coconut aroma and taste it may not be suitable for all dishes. It is most popular is in Asian curries to provide the rich flavors as well as for baking and desserts where it imparts a delicious buttery flavour. Always choose VCO with a fresh aroma and Organic Certified.
When buying Refined Coconut Oil only look for premium quality that is Organic, Odourless and Physically Refined. Most cheap refined cooking coconut oils still maintain some aroma and have been extracted using chemicals and can never be Organically certified as a result. While being slightly more costly than regular refined coconut oil (but still cheaper than Virgin Coconut Oil) it can replace all regular polyunsaturated vegetable oils in the kitchen and is suitable for all kinds of cooking. This is not to be confused with hydrogenated coconut oil made into a margarine that was popular more than 10 years ago (but is seldom found today anyway) as well informed people have woken up to the dangers of margarine and trans fats that are generated in the hydrogenation process of vegetable oils.
COOKING WITH COCONUT FLOUR
Coconut flour may be used alone or combined with other gluten free flours such as almond, tapioca and sweet potato flour. Because it absorbs more liquid than normal grain flours, care must be taken to reduce the quantity by one third if replacing regular flour with coconut flour. Also, without the gluten in wheat flour with its binding properties, eggs are required to add to coconut flour recipes to obtain the same binding strength and avoid crumbling. The secret to making a loaf of bread from coconut flour is to separate the egg white from the yolk and to whisk the egg whites until fluffy and adding this slowly to the final bread dough. Practice makes perfect and there's hundreds of great recipes available free online. Coconut Flour is not to be confused with desiccated coconut as it is very finely ground and has a fat content of around 14% that is optimal for cooking. Desiccated coconut can be either high fat or low fat and has a particle size and moisture content that is unsuitable for replacing conventional flours.
COOKING WITH COCONUT BUTTER
Coconut Butter is made from 100% fresh evaporated coconuts with nothing added or taken away and contains a blend of Virgin Coconut Oil and super ground coconut meat and is rich in fiber, protein and minerals and is delicious added to recipes to get the full sweet coconut taste and health benefits. While many enjoy using it as a spread or just eating it on its own, it makes a great addition by adding a spoonful to finish off your favourite curry or added to gluten free cake and fruit recipes as it provides a natural sweetness and richness.
COOKING WITH COCONUT SUGAR
First timers are surprised to learn that coconut sugar has no taste of coconut because it comes from the evaporated sap of the coconut flower and not the coconut itself. Many dietary experts and chefs are recommending it as a healthier alternative to replace all white sugar and even all processed brown sugars and sweeteners in your kitchen. The glycemic index (GI) of Coconut Flower Sugar is only 35 (the same as a raw carrot) whereas all other sugarcane-based sweeteners, refined white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, and dehydrated cane juice sweeteners have a high glycemic index rating of between 55 to 100. The reason is has such a low GI is because the sugar molecule is tightly bound with abundant nutrients and minerals and thus it only breaks down slowly in the gut and does not cause a sharp rise in insulin and subsequent blood sugar crashes. Thus low glycemic foods are of particular importance for diabetics and anyone looking to reduce weight. Pure coconut sugar is not to be confused with commercial brown palm sugar or “Gula Melaka” which are often blended with other ingredients and contain added white sugar in the final manufacturing process.
The flavour of coconut sugar is similar to brown sugar with a slight caramel taste and it can be used to replace white sugar in all recipes on a 1:1 basis including in drinks, baking and desserts. Coconut sugar is available in 2 forms; granulated sugar and liquid nectar syrup and both may be used interchangeably.
COOKING WITH COCONUT VINEGAR
This can be made from either the naturally fermented coconut water or coconut sugar with only slight differences in acidity and flavour and is suitable for pickles, salad dressings, sauces and recipes where a sour taste is required.
Making the shift to a superfood Coconut Kitchen
These coconut superfoods support health via being nutrient dense with a low glycemic index and minimal impact on insulin, support digestive and intestinal health and are showing promising results in the treatment of many diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s Disease, metabolic syndrome, chronic fatigue, obesity, immune dysregulation, gluten sensitivity and celiac disease, Irritable Bowel Disease (IBS) and many more. To maximize the health benefits of these superfoods then we need to also reduce the consumption of refined Omega 6 vegetable oils, refined high glycemic sugars and sweeteners, refined flours, breads and baked goods and all the myriad of processed foods made from these refined products and full of chemical additives. This process of transition to a healthier diet all begins with the foods you purchase for your family and store in the kitchen cupboards. If the old familiar processed comfort foods are there on the kitchen shelves then by habit alone we will end up cooking foods that do not help us achieve our long term health goals.
Looking for inspiration to cook some delicious superfood treats for your family? How about a delicious chicken and cauliflower curry with coconut butter? Or perhaps a coconut banana cinnamon cake? Or chocolate blueberry coconut brownies? All of these are surprisingly easy when you have these coconut superfoods in your kitchen pantry and some imagination. With experience you can learn to adapt any recipe you find and replace their refined high GI equivalent with low GI coconut superfoods or take the easy way and google the many hundreds of free coconut, low carbohydrate and gluten free recipes available online.