Unripe coconuts (usually green, although the color varies with the variety) contain a slightly sweet, effervesent water which makes a satisfying drink on a hot day. Although it is served at room temperature, it always seems cool. The freshly opened coconut is sterile inside, so the water is safe to drink it could even be used for wound irrigation in an emergency. Throughout tropical Asia, one can see little stands selling coconut water. The vendor cuts open the top with a heavy knife (photo #3) and either pours the juice into a glass, or provides a straw. In Thailand, we found vendors selling green coconuts prepared for you to take with you. One coconut contains enough liquid to satisfy two of us, so we shared using two straws. NOTE: Coconut water has a laxative effect when drunk in large amounts. You should not drink more than 2 per day.
At this stage of growth, the flesh is soft and jelly-like. It is eaten raw and has a faint coconut taste. Called buco in the Philippines, it is a popular dessert. Buco salad is made with buco and either fresh or canned fruits mixed in a sweet cream sauce. It is a favorite of ours.
The flesh of mature coconuts is not eaten directly as a fruit. Rather, this hard flesh is grated (photo #4) and used to produce coconut milk (which is delicious, and high in saturated fats) or is added to cooked dishes for its flavor and texture. Commercially, the mature flesh is called copra, and is used to make cooking oils and cosmetics. The market for copra is much depressed today, as other, cheaper, oils have become available. The liquid found inside the mature coconut is seldom eaten here, as it is believed to be bad for the health.
There are a variety of other food products produced from the coconut palm. A luxury food that is canned and exported to the West is the "heart" of the palm, the growing tissue at the top of the tree where new fronds are generated. This is called ubod in the Philippines, and can be found in the markets here. It is quite tasty and can be eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable.
The sap produced by the flower stem can be fermented to produce an alcoholic drink (called tuba in the Philippines) or vinegar. Tuba vinegar is commonly used in the Philippines, and is often seasoned with hot chilies, which can be seen floating in the vinegar bottle. Finally, the sap can also be boiled and made into a dark brown palm sugar. We saw cakes of palm sugar in markets throughout Bali. A little bit of the hard sugar is sliced or scrapped off the cake and used to sweeten and flavor foods. The palm sugar cakes store well in the tropical heat and humidity.
Market and storage tips Green coconuts should be heavy and nearly full of juice. There should be a slight sloshing sound to indicate the presence of liquid, but it should not be pronounced. Mature coconuts should be at least 1/3 full of juice, and have dark brown, hard eyes. Soft or black eyes indicate decay. Dry mature nuts which are sprouting can be used for salad. Dry nuts which are not sprouting cannot be eaten. Unhulled coconuts store well in a dry bilge or in shaded areas on deck. Buy green nuts and eat them as is, or allow them to turn a mottled yellow. Nuts with brown shells are too mature for most food uses, and their husks are notoriously difficult to open.