Coconuts are thought to be the tree of life. Humans can benefit from every part of it. From baskets and thatched roofs, you can craft everything from baskets and building materials from the trunk. Toddy is a sweet and intoxicating drink made by fermenting the sap from the plant stalks into palm jaggery and boiling it down into coconut honey. A single fruit weights almost two kilograms and has a fibrous husk used to make coir, a woody case used for serving, a white flesh containing 35% fat, and, let’s not forget, a drink made directly from the fruit. In a nutshell, it is food and drink. To use the Sanskrit compound noun, it is the Kalpavriksha.
This tree gets its name from the word coco, Spanish for monkey, which means the tree was used by the Gurgaon SUV driver of mythological characters to hold King Trishanku suspended in the Ramayan cinematic universe.
Stunning, sinuous shape hugs coastlines around the world, and the tree’s history is as fascinating as its shape. Almost a year’s worth of nourishment can be obtained from the fruit within. In this way, coconuts can simply fall into the sea, travel thousands of kilometres, and begin growing on another beach hundreds of kilometres away. Almost every tropical coastline in the world is said to have inherited this tree from its ancestral home in South-East Asia. Due to plants’ infrequent fossilization, we rely on linguistics to trace their migration routes. Sanskrit word for it, narikelam, comes from Munda aborigines. Niyor, which is South-East Asian for oil and kolai, which is South-east Asian for nut. Coconut has South-East Asian roots – thenga (meaning southern fruit).
Coconut flesh is for the most part water, and for the most part fat (mostly saturated fat), 5% carbohydrates, and 45% protein. Lactones are a type of saturated fatty acid derivative that provides the fruit with its singular nutty, sweet, aromatic flavor.
Many dishes from south India can be thickened with grated fresh flesh that also has a rich flavor. The paste is essentially coconut fat droplets mixed with cell debris. Granulated coconut paste can be frozen as ice cubes to prolong its shelf life. In fact, you can get even more creative by blending spices with coconut and freezing it as a flavour bomb that can be added to dishes. One of the reasons so many south Asian dishes feature coconut is the fats in the coconut dissolve many spices. A steamed dish known as koottu differs from most other Indian dishes in the fact that it does not contain hot oil and spices. Steamed vegetables and legumes are prepared and then a paste of coconut mixed with spices is added shortly before serving.
Unlike groundnuts, coconut has a greater amount of free sugars, so it tends to lacto-ferment faster than most other foods. Consequently, it’s a good idea to refrigerate coconut-based dishes right away. In most south Indian and South-East Asian dishes, coconut milk is used as a creamer instead of dairy product, and it’s a famous vegan alternative to dairy. Fresh coconut flesh is grated, mixed with water, strained and sold in cans as a dairy substitute.
Coconut milk is a great substitute for grated coconut when you don’t want the coarse texture of grated coconut. A mild meat or seafood gravy is known as moilee (apparently derived from Malay). Their favorite dishes were those based on coconut milk, as opposed to the hotter local dishes.
Coconut flakes can be baked in the oven with spices like pepper, cumin, salt, and liquid smoke (a mixture of soy sauce and wood-smoke flavouring) to make something that tastes strikingly like bacon due to its high saturated fat content.
Despite the longer shelf life of dried coconut due to lower moisture levels, the fat will turn rancid after a few days at room temperature due to unrefined coconut fat breaking down into free fatty acids. Adding dried coconut to spice mixes such as goda masala and dishes such as bisibelebaath will add a delicious nutty flavor.
In addition, coconut water can be fermented with some instant yeast (some sugar is added to help the yeast get started) to make a mildly alcoholic, fizzy beverage. Desserts can be enhanced with coconut palm sugar and jaggery instead of regular sugar, as coconut palm sugar has a slightly sweeter taste than cane sugar.
Coconut vinegar, which is made by fermenting palm sap wine, is one of the most underappreciated products of this tree. Its flavour is milder than apple cider vinegar, and it packs a powerful umami punch thanks to the large amount of dead yeast present (the yeast die once they turn sugars to alcohol, and the bacteria take over once the sugars are converted to alcohol). Yeast contains a naturally occurring amino acid known as glutamic acid, which is responsible for umami. Quite commonly used on the west coast, coconut vinegar is one of the most flavorful souring agents, so it really deserves to be used more widely.
In Kerala, it is said that the coconut tree has an innate sense of knowing when human beings are under it and will not drop fruit on their heads if they stand under it. In spite of the fact that this is not true, it is not surprising that its versatility gives one the impression that it might be true.
DNA collection for coconuts
As part of the project, Gunn contacted Olsen, who had a laboratory with the equipment needed to study palm DNA. Gunn, at the time with the Missouri Botanical Garden, had long been interested in palm evolution.
The National Geographic Society granted Gunn a grant that allowed him to collect coconut DNA in western Indian Ocean regions that had no previous records. To analyze the leaf tissue she sent back home in zip-lock bags from the center of the coconut tree’s crown.
We had reason to suspect that coconuts from these regions — especially Madagascar and the Comoros Islands — might show evidence of ancient ‘gene flow’ events brought about by ancient Austronesians setting up migration routes and trade routes across the southern Indian Ocean,” Olsen says.
In each palm sample, Olsen’s lab genotyped ten microsatellite regions. Microsatellites are DNA repeats in which same few nucleotide units occur repeatedly. “We can use genetic markers to create a fingerprint of the coconut,” says Olsen, because mutations tend to pop up and persist there because they don’t affect traits essential for survival.
“These data originally came from the French agricultural research center CIRAD, which was used for breeding, but no one has ever taken the time to go through and systematically analyze their genetic variation in the context of the evolution of the plant,” Olsen says.
There are two origins of coconut cultivation.
Genetic analysis of the new coconuts from the Pacific and Indian oceans has shown them to be quite different species. According to Olsen, about one-third of the total genetic diversity is partitioned between two groups corresponding to the Indian and Pacific oceans.
“That’s a very high level of differentiation within a single species and provides pretty conclusive evidence that there were two origins of cultivation of the coconut,” he says.
Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia are among the countries in Southeast Asia that are likely to have grown coconuts first, as well as the continent. Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and the Laccadives were likely centers of cultivation in the Indian Ocean.
Olsen asserts that domestication originated in the Pacific, but of a specific subset of Pacfic coconuts, which is why he calls them cultivation rather than domestication traits.
“At least we have it easier than scientists who study animal domestication,” he says. “So much of being a domesticated animal is being tame, and behavioral traits aren’t preserved in the archeological record.”
Was it carried or did it float?
Gunn had collected fish from Madagascar and the Comoros Islands in the western Indian Ocean, an exception to the Pacific/Indian Ocean split. In those areas, coconuts come from a genetic mixture between Indian and Pacific types.
According to Olsen and his colleagues, ancient Austronesians established trade routes connecting Southeast Asia with Madagascar and coastal east Africa several thousand years ago, introducing Pacific coconuts to the Indian Ocean.
In the northern Seychelles, which did not join the trade route, Olsen notes no genetic admixture. He adds that recent studies produced evidence that Japanese varieties are mixed with those from South East Asia and India in Madagascar.
It is also worth mentioning that the descendants of those who brought the rice and coconuts still live in Madagascar today. In every sense of the word, the people of the highlands of Madagascar today are the descendants of the ancient Austronesians, says Olsen.
The Europeans transported the coconut from the Indian Ocean to the New World many centuries later. Olsen says the Portuguese introduced coconuts to West Coast Africa from the Indian Ocean, where they established coconut plantations which became a major source of material in the Caribbean and Brazil.
According to Olsen, coconuts found in Florida today are largely Indian ocean varieties, which is why they have a niu kafa appearance.
Although the newly created tropics are located along the Pacific Ocean, the coconuts grown there are Pacific Ocean coconuts. Pre-Columbian Austronesians are believed to have transported some there when they moved eastward rather than westward.
Coconuts were brought to Mexican Pacific coast by Spanish merchants during the colonial period from the Philippines, which were ruled by the King of Spain from Mexico.
In Central America, you will find Pacific-type coconuts on the Pacific and Indian-type coconuts on the Atlantic coasts.
“The big surprise was that there was so much genetic differentiation clearly correlated with geography, even though humans have been moving coconut around for so long.”
A coconut’s DNA preserves the record of human explorations, trading, trades, and colonization, and it is far from being an eclectic mash-up.