Once a year, for a few months the "Grounds Maintenance Department" here on Kwajalein goes around the island and cuts down ripening coconuts from all the many palm trees on island. This is a very necessary task, because a falling coconut can cause serious injury should it land on an unsuspecting pedestrian or bicycler. And since I can count 86 trees just from my chair on the lanai - without even turning around, and not counting my own six trees - you can see why it takes a few months. It is now that time of year, so coconuts are on my mind. All the baked goodies associated with the recent holidays bring to mind the packaged, processed, "flaked" coconut that many people use in cookies, cakes and pies. And of course, many of those who "imbibe" have enjoyed the wondrous flavors of a Piña Colada, an alcoholic concoction using pineapple juice, coconut and rum...pass the paper umbrellas, please.
Some people have never seen a real, right off the tree coconut. And those who haven't would never associate the sight with those little brown balls that you can find occasionally in your local supermarket. An actual coconut on the tree looks somewhat like a green football, and it is about that size. When we want fresh coconut, we need to find someone willing to climb to the top of some very tall trees to cut one (or more) down. The ones that fall to the ground of their own accord are generally much older nuts, whose water has dried up and the meat is tough. I have a Marshallese friend, Ebil, who does this for a living, and I can generally find him somewhere on island, climbing a tree for just that purpose.
Once the nuts are down, my friend places a strong stick in the ground that has a very sharp point facing up. He strikes the coconut pod, (the green football looking thingy), on the pointed stick and pulls...this separates the husk from the actual seed, or coconut. Now, I could get all technical with the proper botanical names for all these different parts of the coconut, but that has been done already, and if you are interested, you can find all that out the "Plant Files". This is strictly for the fun of it, so I'm sticking with "green football thingy". Once the seed is out of the husk, it starts to resemble something you might recognize, but it isn't dark brown, it is a straw colored ball with a fibrous beard on one end. If you look at the end opposite the beard, you can see three small indentations. Those are a softer part of the seed shell, from which the coconut will sprout. More importantly, those are the entryway INTO the wondrous sphere. Looking at those three little circles, one can almost see a face - two eyes and a mouth. The spacing of the circles usually makes it pretty clear which is which, and the one we are interested in is the mouth. This indentation is generally softer than the others are, and easily pierced with a hammer and large nail, making just the right size hole for a straw.
The smaller, greener coconuts contain a naturally effervescent water that is sweet and refreshing. If you have only had the water from the older brown nuts sold in stores, you probably think of this water as bitter and dull. Believe me, the difference is worlds apart. My Marshallese friends just find the soft spot by the mouth and strike the nut against something hard to break it open and enjoy a very satisfying and healthy drink. Now this water is not to be confused with coconut milk, which is created by pouring warm water or milk over freshly grated coconut meat and pressing the oils out through a sieve or cheese cloth. Once the oils have been pressed out - the meat is dry and tasteless, but is good food for animals (or plants!).
If you are more interested in the coconut meat inside, there are many ways to get to it. You can wrap it in an old towel or bag and whack at it with a hammer. You can use a very sharp knife, hide your loved ones in another room, and tap the knife into the shell (again at the mouth), and then work the knife back and forth to create a hole large enough to scoop out the meat. Or you can whack the nut against something hard and then separate it along the three seams between the "face". Again, there are many ways to remove the meat from the shell. Some favor the sharp knife and precision cuts. I find that a butter or other type of dull knife slipped between the meat and the shell and then worked a bit will cause the meat to "pop" off in chunks that can then be grated for cooking or pressing or just snacked on at your leisure. In the younger coconuts, once the water is gone there is a gelatinous layer of coconut before you get to the meat...this is very sweet and soft, and is often used in the preparation of coconut ice cream. The older the nut, the less of this soft substance, which is why you will rarely find it in supermarket nuts.
The Coconut Palm is sometimes referred to as the "Tree of Life", and island people will use every little bit of the tree from the roots to the fronds, nuts, bark and wood. I will be happy to go into all of that some other time. But for right now I am going to cut a pineapple, slush some of it up with some freshly grated coconut, add a bit of rum, slush that up in a blender with some ice, and then go watch the sunset. Oh, mustn't forget the paper umbrella! Enjoy!