"One of these nuts is a meal for a man, both meat and drink."
--Marco Polo

"He who plants a coconut tree plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a home for himself and a heritage for his children"
--South Seas saying

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(Cocos nucifera)

This fruit of the coco palm begins life on a tree that towers from 60 to 100 feet high. Because it is peculiarly suited for dispersion across tropical islands--as its big seed is filled with buoyant water and encased in a water-tight pod--no one knows or, probably, can know where it first originated (though some speculate on the Malayan Archipelago). Certainly, however, it's an incredibly nutritious and useful food--providing milk, meat, sugar, and oil and acting as its own food dish and cup. It's husk can also be burned as a fuel to cook the fruit and its milk.

Although its name was recorded in Sanskrit in the early beginnings of history, the coconut was unknown to the western world until the 6th century, when it was imported into Egypt from the Indian Ocean--and still made little impression, though Marco Polo recognized it as "Pharoah's nut" when he ran across it in India on his travels.

In the Middle Ages, coconuts were so rare and so cherished that their shells were polished and mounted in gold. By the 19th century, however, new transportation routes made them common in European markets--and throwing objects ("coconut shies") at local side shows.

As an important food source in most tropical (humid) countries, it has magic and mythic associations. Balinese women are not permitted to touch the trees, lest they drain away the tree's fertility.

And yet, the great Buddhist teacher in 19th century Burma, Thingazar Sayadaw, used the coconut to tell a very practical story:

Prologue: After a sermon at the town of Pyinmana in Middle Burma the Thingazar Sayadaw was told, "We find your lordship's sermons very instructive, but some people say that they contain no deep religious philosophy. In other words, they find the sermons too elementary." The Sayadaw smiled and said, "They remind me of the Caravan-Leader who bought a coconut and found that it was not sweet at all."

During the early days of the kingdom of Ava, a caravan of hillmen arrived with their merchandise at the market place. After selling their wares, they went from stall to stall with gold coins jingling in their pockets, looking for rare articles to be bought and taken home.

They paused before a stall selling fruit and looked in wonder at a bunch of coconuts on display. "What are those?" asked the Leader of the Caravan. "Coconuts, my friend," replied the woman stallkeeper. "They are very expensive and only kings and great lords can afford to buy them." "Of course, I can afford to buy them," the Caravan-Leader replied somewhat testily. "Name your price." Learning that the price was one silver coin for one coconut, he bought the whole bunch with a lordly air.

The hillmen then started on their journey homeward, and, after one or two days' travel, the Caravan-Leader said, "My friends, let us now taste the wondrous coconut which only kings and lords can eat." So saying, he cut the coconut, ate the outer fiber, and then threw away the nut, thinking it was a mere seed and not dreaming at all that there was sweet milk and a rich kernel inside. His friends followed suit with the other coconuts from the bunch. The Caravan-Leader then said, "Friends, kings and lords are foolish indeed to value this tasteless fruit."

Where'd they get their name? From Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. When these explorers found this fruit growing on Indian Ocean islands, they described it as a coco, or "grinning face," because of its 3 dark holes at its base which look like a pop-eyed merry face.

If you can't find canned coconut milk in a Thai/Indian market or fancy supermarket, you can make it. Just pour some boiling water over fresh grated or packaged UNSWEETENED coconut. Let it sit for about 5 minutes, then blend in a blender or food processor and strain as finely as you can, pressing the solids hard before throwing them out. Add the coconut milk at the last possible minute because its distinctive flavor degrades quickly in high heat.