Nuts About Coconuts

What is about the tropical fruit that makes it such a fascinating ingredient of the food world? Seasoned chefs and culinary custodian decode

By Madhulika Dash

When it comes to ingredients, the food world often follows the suit of the entertainment industry – if one season belongs to one ingredient than another to the next, and then the next. And each time a produce gets on to the limelight spot, there are many things one learns about it. Take for instance moringa that made its debut in the world scene in 2017 as a superfood. In the time the drumstick leaves ruled the food charts, one saw various facets of this known produce – even in India, which has known of its existence and has been using it extensively in its cuisine. Likewise, was the case with ghee.

The one exception to this rule however has been coconut. Yes, the versatile fruit that has played with our palates more than any of its peer and ancestry. In fact, most chefs call it the “exceptional reagent” that has helped them innovate, recreate and even adapt to new styles of living among diners, the latest being vegan. As we celebrate World Coconut Day, chefs and culinary custodian wax eloquence on the one kitchen essential that they have learnt to hugely appreciate – and want.

Dish: Sumatra Dark Chocolate Mousse

Coconut for me, as a chef, is the perfect condiment to have in hand. It is a flavourant, it can built texture, it can create lightness and is absolute invincible when it comes to its cooling effect to a dish. It doesn’t only pare down spiciness but also lends this rich, velvet kind of mouthfeel that can turn any dish acceptable, even addictive. And yet, every time I use coconut in its many forms there is a newness that this alternative moo brings to the fore. One of the stunning examples of this is the deconstructed Sumatra chocolate mousse we serve in Sriracha. My representation of the Indonesian street treat, the dessert initially was served as one before we decided to deconstruct the element and created the base of coconut cream, topped with dark chocolate mousse and garnished with Peanut Tuile representing the Petronas Towers, and voila, the whole indulgence level of the dessert changed. Today, it is a best seller and by far my favourite work with coconut.

Dish: Duck Stew

When you look at coconut and the way our ancestors have used it in every possible way – from dessert to savouries, and even in relishes – you may wonder is there anything that has been not explored about this Indian kitchen essential. But that is till you work with this tropical nut again and realise how octane its versatility is. The same coconut can give you different textures and sides to play around with. In fact, its bonding with protein is one of the things that makes it such an impressive condiment to work with. But for me, coconut, especially the water of a green coconut and the meat is by far the best natural creation that can add the depth and layer to a dish. And nothing says it better than the Duck Stew I recently made using the breast portion. The hint of the coconut water right at the end of this coconut milk-based sauce dish works like a charm in creating this subtle, light aromatic mouthfeel that often elevates the experience of having a well braised duck.

Dish: Coconut shortbread, pineapple and berries

There something absolutely stunning about how beautifully coconut can lend itself to any dish. In fact, many a time it comes as an absolute surprise as to how well it can take on different role play without overpowering any dish – be it savoury, sweet and a blend of two. But the one place that I find the usage of coconut absolutely fascinating is when it allows us to purely pair different products with it while keeping its texture natural. Like the coconut shortbread, pineapple and berries. It is a fruit basket where coconut is not only the hero of the dish, it’s also the flavourant, the sweetener, the contrast and the base of this extremely light yet fascinating raw food dessert. And the best thing about it is that I can still pour in coconut water and it would merely elevate the dish. That’s what is coconut in a nutshell.

Dish: Charred and caramalised coconut modak

If I say that chocolate and coconut are pair made in heaven, you may already know about it. Since ages, chocolate chefs – and now all chefs, have been using the creaminess of coconut milk to add texture and body to the dessert. But did you know coconut in dessert has been a tradition in India since the early years when it wasn’t used for texture only but sweetness as well. For me, coconut is more than just the sweetness or the fact that it is the perfect option to take when dairy isn’t an option, it is about creating that perfect blend of familiarity in a new concept. Coconut then works like a charm, given that it has a taste most palates know of. The advantage that it pairs beautifully with spices, fruits, preserves only makes the deal so much sweeter – much like the caramelised chocolate modak, where I have tried playing with the various facets of coconut and its forms.

Dish: Jasmine Chocolate Mousse With Raspberry Icecream

In the culinary world, there is a famous saying – everything in moderation is good unless it is the hero of the dish. That rule can easily break when you are working with coconut. And the reason that I say this is not because coconut is an error-free ingredient – not at all. The tropical fruit can be as moody as its fruit peers, but unlike them it gives enough canvas (read: varieties) to play. And that is what makes the Jasmine Chocolate Mousse With Raspberry Icecream such a wonderment. In making this, we have used coconut in every possible way. From soaking liquid to the cream inside to even the meringue on top (which is created on the table while serving). And the result is fascinating. The texture, the creaminess and the palate play with raspberry is amazing. The best part, it takes a few bites to recognise the coconut in it.

Dish: Banana Leaf Bhetki served with Coconut Masala

Nothing says ‘innovation’ in bold white like a coconut. Having the fruit in the kitchen – be it fresh, milked, creamed or even desiccated, is like having that ace card to create a wondrous dish at the end. It is extremely versatile fruit with various health benefits, and lends beautifully to any dish, be it gravy, dessert or even a snack. At Comorin, one of our favourite creation that pays ode to this very versatility of coconut is the Banana Leaf Bhetki served with Coconut Masala where coconut balances the spiciness of the chillies while giving it that korma kind of sweet aftertaste; and in Raw Mango Prawn Curry, where the coconut milk adds that tongue-coating velvetiness and sweet mouthfeel and perfectly complements that melodiousness of fresh prawns.

Dish: Yella Bella

Hailing from the southern part of India itself means that both coconut and loving coconut is in my blood. In fact, if there is one thing that my palate has been trained since childhood to recognise, appreciate and even recreate is that of a coconut. Even when I took up re-presenting our Iyer cuisine, especially the one I have grown up with, I began experimenting first with coconut, coconut chutney to be precise. However, I think one of the finest uses of coconut even in our coconut laden culinary repertoire is Yellu Bella. A brilliant winter breakfast made of jaggery, dry coconut, roasted peanuts, roasted split chana dal, white sesame, and sugar-coated cumin seeds. It’s satiating to the soul. While recreating it, I used coconut as my start point and the rest followed. My style of Yellu Bala has coconut and jaggery ice cream with roasted white sesame paste, peanut butter, roasted coconut with cumin, warm coconut milk and sugar balls. A kind of Monochrome Winter!

Dish: Chinchipatra Pitha

I love coconuts. In fact, for someone who isn’t too fond of all things sweet, the tropical fruit and the number of times I use it in my cooking, especially when I am learning a dish or adopting a traditional version to suit an unfamiliar palate. It is this ability of coconut that has always fascinated me – much like the history of how it penetrated the culinary weave of food cultures that were around the coast and beyond. And one such impressive usage of coconut is in our pithas, especially Chunchipatra Pitha, which is smokescreen thin pancake – and thanks to its fluid batter (almost watery consistency) has little taste of its own, unlike its peers like the chakuli and chitau pitha. How did our ancestors decide to add coconut, jaggery and pepper as the filling is perhaps the stuff of much deliberation (and research), but the effect is outstanding. So much so that even while innovating on it, I have found myself returning to coconut for a new inspiration.

Dish: Vegan Liquid Tiramisu

Coconut is our dairy! And as a chef who advocates the goodness of vegan style of eating, I will stand by the virtues of coconut always. It is one ingredient that is versatile enough to be a flavorant, texture builder, can give bodies to dessert …. In fact, one of the few ingredients that is, in my experience, better than dairy in every aspect. But my love with coconut predates my vegan stint. It is an ingredient that I was absolutely in love with as a spice, as a cream – and often was my go-to secret ingredient to add that little extra to my dishes. What helped of course is like all people from the South I too have grown up on a healthy dose of coconut dishes that have helped me understand the nut better. When I decided to become a vegan, the tropical fruit became my best mate to start work with. And nowhere can you see that bond and magic happen between my signature dish, Vegan Liquid Tiramisu. It is an ode to coconut – and its marriage with Coorg-grown coffee.