Feeding The Nation


Coconut: The Tree of Life

Words by Janet DeNeefe

As I write, I am sipping on green coconut juice that I’m told has anti-ageing properties to make my skin sparkle. It’s little wonder that coconut is fashionable again. From coconut lattes to coconut yoghurt, virgin coconut oil, coconut sugar and coconut water, this tropical fruit is the ivory-white darling of the conscious-minded millennial. Only 10 years ago, coconut oil was slammed by suggestions it promoted high cholesterol and aggravated heart conditions, but now its reputation has been rehabilitated. It is the dream food of vegans, providing an elegant substitute for cow’s milk and butter, while coconut sugar, oil and juice play supporting roles of mineral-packed low-GI goodness.

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of coconuts, yielding around 18.3 million tonnes a year: the provinces of Riau in Sumatra, North Sulawesi and East Java are the main growing areas. While it clearly plays an important role in the national economy farmers are struggling to keep up with growing demand. As coconut’s popularity increases, so have the many coconut-based options on store shelves. A dizzying array of food products, from shredded coconut to coconut oil, milk, water, flakes, beverages, flour, butter and sugar, are available. Beauty creams, hair products, confectionery and medicine also feature the coveted nut.

In Asia, coconut enjoys a different sort of reverence. Considered the ‘Tree of Life’, it provides food, shelter and water. In Sanskrit, it is known as kalpavriksha, ‘the tree which provides all the necessities of life’. In Bali, the coconut is the symbol of life and fertility, and it appears in all major offerings. Before any property is built on the island, a young coconut wrapped in cloth, or daksina, is buried in the foundations to instil the premises with cosmic life force. In the ancient Indian scripture Bhagavad-Gita Lord Krishna explained to the prince Arjuna that the perfect offering should contain fruit, flowers and water: enter the coconut. For major Balinese ceremonies hundreds of coconuts are used, including not just the nut but also the slender lemongrasscoloured fronds. At Idul Fitri (Eid al-Fitr), the important Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the traditional feast to break the fast is rice steamed in beautifully woven coconut-leaf triangles, eaten with coconut-rich opor curries and side dishes.

With a never-ending list of health benefits, the coconut craze is not without reason. Coconut flesh is extremely nutritious and rich in fibre, vitamins C, E, B1, B3, B5 and B6, and minerals including iron, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, zinc and phosphorous. It contains lauric acid, a saturated fatty acid that raises the good HDL cholesterol in your blood, which is linked to reduced heart disease risk. Coconuts can boost fat burning while providing your body and brain with quick energy. Coconut sugar is rich in B8, which helps promote brain and liver health and is also believed to be useful for depression. Coconut water contains antioxidants that protect cells from damaging free radicals: it is said to help lower blood pressure while improving sugar control.

Thankfully, there is a diverse range of delicious ways to add coconut to your diet – and Indonesia is unsurprisingly a world leader in this respect. West Sumatra’s beloved rendang, dry meat curry, is slow cooked for at least four hours in fresh coconut milk until it reduces into an intense, spice-laden glorious glaze. Gulai and kalio are other Sumatran triumphs, and what we think of as ‘wetter’ curries in the West. Gulai kambing, small chunks of goat meat cooked in a smooth-as-silk curry sauce, is a favourite in our house. Opor ayam is a delicate galangal-scented chicken curry that I’m crazy about, and it is served in just about every roadside lesehan eating house in Yogyakarta. Mangut lele, whiskery catfish, is simmered in a pond of coconut milk and hails from this region too. I enjoyed it in Tembe at Mbah Marto’s warung and was blown away by the intriguing experience. Manado has its klaapa tart (coconut custard tart), while Makassar’s famous pallu basa is a beefy, soupy statement slathered in coconut milk. Nasi kuning, yellow rice, a favourite breakfast food, is cooked in turmeric, bay leaves and coconut milk. Tabu moitomo, from Gorontalo, is a nutritious black beef soup, its colour taken from the foundation of grated, roasted coconut. Bali’s ceremonial dish, lawar, combines roasted coconut with a mountain of spices, ground meat and greens. Sambal matah is not the same without the deepscented sweetness of coconut oil, and urap, a warm salad of seasonal greens, is mixed with grated coconut and chilli. Fresh smoky coconut oil in smoked duck takes it to elevated aromatic heights. Across the Indonesian archipelago, there are thousands more savoury dishes that use coconut in some shape or form.

And then there’s an exhaustive list of sweet dishes. Smooth caramel-flavoured coconut syrup is either drizzled over fried bananas, pancakes, puddings and steamed sweets, or added to cakes and puddings. Klepon, tiny bliss bombs of sticky rice flour filled with coconut sugar, steamed and then rolled in grated coconut, is a national favourite. I can’t imagine black rice pudding Bubur Injin without the deep multi-levelled sweetness of coconut sugar and final layer of velvety roasted coconut milk. Dadar unti, pandan crepes, are filled with grated coconut simmered with caramel-flavoured coconut sugar. And on it goes.

There is no other tree that conjures up such a sensuous image of paradise, island life and sun-baked holidays. It is surely the trademark of the tropics, and there is nothing more appealing than a beach lined with fringed coconut trees, or sipping tall, icy cocktails under the shade of these elegant leafy beachside umbrellas.

Coconut is important not only for the Indonesian economy, but also for the tourism industry. While providing the essentials of food, shelter and water, let’s not overlook how coconuts can also enhance life’s little luxuries: cocktails, for example. Waiter, can I have another green-coconut colada, please? Cheers!shape or form.

From Colours AUGUST 2018

Janet DeNeefe

Melbourne-born Janet DeNeefe the Founder and director of the annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Ubud Food Festival and Bali Emerging Voices Festival, has lived in Bali for nearly three decades. Her latest book is Bali: Food of My Island Home, following her memoir Fragrant Rice. She is also the owner of Casa Luna, Indus and Bar Luna restaurants in Ubud.