Botanically, a coconut is a simple dry nut known as a fibrous drupe. The husk, or mesocarp, is composed of fibers called coir and there is an inner stone, or endocarp. The endocarp is the hardest part. This hard endocarp, the outside of the coconut as sold in the shops of non-tropical countries, has three germination pores that are clearly visible on the outside surface once the husk is removed. It is through one of these that the radicle emerges when the embryo germinates. Adhering to the inside wall of the endocarp is the testa, with a thick albuminous endosperm (the coconut “meat”), the white and fleshy edible part of the seed.
Although coconut meat contains less fat than other dry nuts such as peanuts and almonds, it is noted for its high amount of saturated fat. Approximately 90% of the fat found in coconut meat is saturated, a proportion exceeding that of foods such as lard, butter, and tallow. However, there has been some debate as to whether or not the saturated fat in coconuts is healthier than the saturated fat found in other foods . Coconut meat also contains less sugar and more protein than popular fruits such as bananas, apples and oranges, and it is relatively high in minerals such as iron, phosphorus and zinc.
The endosperm surrounds a hollow interior space, filled with air and often a liquid referred to as coconut water, not to be confused with coconut milk. Coconut milk is made by grating the endosperm and mixing it with (warm) water. The resulting thick, white liquid is used in Asian cooking, for example, in curries. Coconut water from the unripe coconut, however, can be drunk fresh. Young coconuts used for coconut water are called tender coconuts. The water of a tender coconut is liquid endosperm. It is sweet (mild) with aerated feel when cut fresh. Depending on the size a tender coconut could contain the liquid in the range of 300 to 1,000 ml.
Back in the States, my mom buys young coconuts at the Vietnamese grocery store (Vien Dong in San Diego to be exact). They come packaged in plastic wrap and are of questionable origin. Whereas coconuts in Vietnam are hacked open to order, my poor mother has to cut the top off using a butcher knife. It’s quite a funny site seeing my petite mother with a huge knife desperately forcing the fruit open to get to the flesh and juice.
During my short stay in Vietnam, the price of coconuts have doubled. When I arrived last summer, a coconut sold for 3,000 VND. These days, it’s not uncommon to see a coconut for 6,000 VND. Vietnam is struggling with inflation.
In addition to being served fresh, coconuts can be used as a cooking vessel (see: bo tai dua), an ice cream bowl (see: kem trai dua) and transformed into Jello (post to come!).