Ingredient TM_IN_OTT_CNUT_AP_002

The Fruit of Life

Exploring the history and utility of the coconut in the Caribbean basin


The Tree of Life is not a tree. It has no bark or branches or secondary growth. The Tree of Life, as the coconut palm is often called, is so named because of its importance to the existence of millions of people around the globe.

The trunk and leaves of the coconut palm provide building materials. From the husk of its fruit, a fiber called coir is used to make rope and sewing thread. Bowls and buttons are made from the shell. The meat and juice within provide sustenance while the leaves are used as animal feed. The coconut is rich in Vitamins B and C, calcium, iron, and amino acids. Hats, fans, jewelry, cosmetics, and fuel are some of the many other products that utilize various parts of the tree and its fruit. Botanically, its fruit is classified as a drupe, like the peach or olive. The outermost layer, green and smooth, is the exocarp, which surrounds a fleshy layer, or mesocarp, followed by the hard, woody layer, the endocarp, which contains the seed. This is how we most often encounter the coconut — with the exocarp and mesocarp removed. In the 15th century, Portuguese explorers found the fruit growing on islands in the Indian Ocean. Because of the three dark patches (germination pores) found at its base, they likened it to the face of a goblin or monkey. Although “coco” is Portuguese for goblin, it is often translated as “monkey face.” It has been the coconut ever since.

Coconuts on the tree. By XX via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Coconuts on the tree. By Alex Proimos via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Coconut palms can be found in the tropics around the world — a band between 25 degrees north and south of the equator. The palm, however, is not native to the Caribbean. Its evolutionary path intertwines with the complex human story of trade, colonization, and migration. Attempting to trace the dispersal of the coconut using archaeological studies has proven difficult because it has been cultivated and transported for thousands of years. Recent scientific studies have provided more insight into the possible path the coconut may have taken en route to the Caribbean. Using DNA analysis, it has been determined that most coconuts have evolved from one of two genetically distinct types: Cocos nucifera; variants of C. nucifera are categorized as tall (var. typica) and dwarf (var. nana).

One population traces its ancestry to palms from the coasts of the Indian Ocean basin while others migrated from the Pacific basin. Caribbean palms are thought to be of Indian ancestry. Coconuts can remain viable even after spending months floating in the sea and traveling thousands of miles. Being sturdy, buoyant, and saltwater-resistant, some coconuts may have floated on ocean currents and became established in their new Caribbean home. As often happens, however, humans may have assisted in the dispersal of this beneficial fruit.

A coconut on a Cuban beach

A coconut on a Cuban beach. By James Savage via Flickr (Creative Commons)

One of the most significant events in human history, the Columbian Exchange, dramatically altered the lifestyles, habits, and diets of inhabitants of both the New and the Old Worlds. The exchange of food, plants, and animals as well as cultural elements between the eastern and western hemispheres that followed Columbus’ initial transatlantic voyage had a profound impact on indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean basin. The coconut was surely among the products in the exchange and is now integral to the cuisines found there.

The coconut finds its way into a vast variety of dishes in the Caribbean, from the traditional Limón rice and beans dish, gallo pinto, which incorporates coconut milk, thyme, and Panamanian peppers, to hudut, the garifuna fish, plantain, and coconut milk stew. Coconut is often paired with curries, resulting in a savory dish that offers an intriguing blend of sweet and spicy notes. A common dessert ingredient, coconut milk is incorporated into many delectable desserts such as the classic coconut bread pudding, Boudin de Pasas con Coco. And Polvo de Amor, “love powder,” is prepared with grated coconut meat that is cooked rapidly in a kettle with sugar and served crisp and golden brown.

Left: TK. Right: TK

Left: William Felding, 1st Earl of Denbigh by Anthony Van Dyck. This portrait was painted to commemorate his travels. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London via Wikimedia Commons. Right: Toddy collectors at work on Cocos nucifera palms (1850–1851) from Flore des serres et des jardins de l’Europe, volume 6 by Louis van Houtte. Toddy collectors climb coconut palms to collect their sap, which is then made into palm wine. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The coconut is also embraced in Rastafarian cuisine, created by the religious and cultural group that originated in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica in the 1930s. Black Jamaicans living in squalor saw white oppression as the root cause of their poverty. Further provoked by Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) in 1935, they formed a group opposed to white power and selected Haile Selassie, recently crowned emperor of Ethiopia, as their god. They viewed the body as a temple that must be kept clean and pure, and, to that end, strict Rastafarians eschew all animal products, including dairy and eggs. The vegetarian diet they observe consists of “Ital” foods, or those that are natural and vital. Ital foods are served as raw as unprocessed as possible (although cooking is acceptable), free of additives, preservatives, or any commercial processing. Some Ital dishes Rastafarians enjoy that are made with coconut milk include Ital nut soup (using peanuts), rich Rasta brownies (flavored with molasses and allspice and, optionally, marijuana leaves and flowers), and Ital stew with cornmeal dumplings, a mélange of fresh fruits and vegetables like plantain, banana, breadfruit, pumpkin, yam, and cassava. The coconut cream is combined with carrots in Zion juice; the coconut oil, the only oil used in Rasta cooking, is used in spicy sauces, in many other dishes, and as a cooking oil; and the grated coconut flesh shows up in Rasta salads with beans, bell pepper, raisins, and nuts.

An Ital-inspired coconut vegetable curry

An Ital-inspired coconut vegetable curry. By Eylon Israely via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Highly versatile, delicious, and nutritious, the coconut weaves its way through the rich culture and culinary landscape of the Caribbean. Also known as the Jewel of the Tropics, its importance in the lives of so many cannot be overstated. Although today it is commonplace, the coconut’s complex and varied history has much in common with those whom it sustains. •

Lead image by Abigail Becker via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Cheryl Ott is a student at Drexel University.


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