Coconut Cooking

By Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE

Any of us in the States think of coconuts as a decadent treat. In Indonesia there is a saying that there are as many uses for coconuts as there are days in the year. In India the belief is, "He who plants a coconut tree plants vessels and clothing, food and drink, a habitation for this generation, and a heritage for future generations." Coconut wood is used to make furniture, and fibers from the leaves are used to make rope, baskets, brushes, rugs, and fabric. The shell can be used as organic Tupperware or for cooking and heating fuel, and the sap can be fermented into an alcoholic beverage. Milled and compressed coconut husks are sold for use as soil conditioners as an alternative to sphagnum peat. Coconut oil is used to make soap, shampoo, detergent, hand lotion, (edible) milk substitutes, and a cooking liquid that can be used in candy and baked goods. Coconut pulp, water, or juices, and coconut milk are important ingredients in many cuisines.

While traveling in Sri Lanka we saw patients in a field hospital given fresh coconut water (the fluid found inside the coconut) right from the shell, as this was considered a safe and sanitary source of fluid. In southern Thailand, coconut juice and meat were used in cooking and the shells were used to fuel the cook stove. In India we purchased a whole, fresh, iced coconut from a street vendor for about a nickel (we were advised that this was a tasty and safe alternative to tap water), and in the West Indies street vendors sold coconut pulp sautéed in palm oil and sprinkled with cane sugar (you might need a note from your cardiologist for this treat!).

The coconut is not a nut at all, but a drupe, a category of fruit. If you're considering adding a coconut palm to your landscaping (and live in a tropical climate), leave lots of air space, as coconut palms can grow as high as 100 feet. Once they reach full height, which takes 5-7 years, a coconut palm will yield 5-6 coconut bunches annually, with about a dozen coconuts per bunch (get the mai tai glasses ready). The coconut is a fruit of several layers. There are outer hard and thin husks for protection, coconut pulp lining the shell, and coconut water (also called coconut juice) contained inside. The older the coconut, the thicker the coconut water; very mature coconuts have an almost custard-like water. Coconut milk does not "occur" in the coconut, but is man-made by mashing coconut pulp — but I'll talk more about that later. Coconuts are harvested at different times of maturity. The younger the coconut, the softer, but less sweet, the pulp, and the more plentiful the water. Young coconut is used more in savory dishes, such as curries and pilafs, and older coconut in sweet dishes.

Coconut milk is not the thin stuff found when sipping on a coconut; that's coconut juice. And it's not the really thick and gooey stuff used to make tropical drinks; that's cream of coconut, made by adding lots and lots of sugar to coconut milk and boiling it. Coconut milk is a combination of coconut pulp and water. Most grocery stores carry coconut milk (always go for the unsweetened); try Asian or Hispanic stores. Or make your own. Dry, unsweetened coconut flakes (or dried fresh, grated coconut) can be combined with equal amounts of boiling water in a blender (be careful!). Purée, let sit for a minute and strain, pressing to get all the liquid. Your coconut milk is ready to use. If you want to get some of the fat out, an alternate way to prepare coconut milk is to simmer coconut with water over a low flame for about 30 minutes. Strain and let stand; a layer of "cream" will develop. You can skim this off and discard it. Coconut cream is wonderful used in baked dishes instead of soymilk or puréed tofu. You can add it to coffee or use it as a topping on hot or cold cereal. If you want to store it, it must be refrigerated, as it is perishable and can support bacterial growth if left too long at warm temperatures. Coconut milk should last about 3 days in the fridge; if it separates, just shake or stir to mix. Coconut milk does not freeze well, so plan your amounts carefully.

You can make your coconut milk thicker or thinner depending on your preference — just add more or less water. If using it for sauces or curries, you might want thicker milk. For use in smoothies or as a beverage ingredient, you might want thinner milk. For cooking, coconut milk is a versatile ingredient, offering creaminess without dairy. Coconut milk is the backbone of "creamy" dishes without the cream and is used in sweet and savory dishes. It is heated as a fast dessert sauce in Vietnamese cuisine, used as a basis for Puerto Rican "tembleque," or coconut pudding, in Caribbean rice and bean soups and stews, and to finish curries in Thailand and India.

It can be a thickener, used instead of heavy cream, used as a substitute for water in both stews and puddings, used to deglaze a pan, or as a cooking liquid for veggies (try corn) or for noodles. It can be frozen with a small amount of sweetener to make a sorbet.

As far as fat is concerned, there is no such thing as a lean coconut product; keep in mind that 30% of daily calories can come from fat in the diet of a healthy person. Coconut can be a portion of those calories. Coconut juice has the lowest amount of fat calories, about two grams of fat in eight ounces. Coconut milk is relatively high, with about 40 grams of fat in eight ounces of liquid, but coconut meat and cream of coconut are the winners for high fat content with about 50 grams of fat per eight ounces of fluid. On the positive side, coconut has a small amount of folic acid and moderate amounts of potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium; raw coconut has about five grams of dietary fiber per one-ounce serving. If fat calories concern you, cut coconut milk with water or vegetable broth. There are also "lite" varieties of coconut milk readily available. There is no getting around the fact that coconut of any type is high in saturated fat and calories, but it may be a "healthier" type of fat than manufactured fats, such as hydrogenated margarines.

If you are going for fresh coconut, try young coconut, brown coconut, and coquito nuts, depending on the time of year. Select a coconut that "sloshes" when it is shaken and has firm, dry eyes. An untapped coconut can be stored in a cool, dark, dry place for up to three months. Young coconut (often with a white husk) can be used for its coconut juice and for its slightly sweet pulp. Drink the juice as is or add to other fruit juices, such as mango nectar, or pineapple or orange juice. Use the pulp as an addition to rice or grains (coconut-raisin couscous — yum!), grated into veggies, such as carrots or green beans, chopped into hot or cold cereal, or shredded into muffins and quick breads (how about coconut-carrot-pineapple bread?). More mature coconuts have sweeter juice and pulp, so adjust your seasoning accordingly. Coquito nuts are baby coconuts, cultivated largely from Chilean palm trees. (If you can't find them, you can log on to <>, a specialty produce house based in Los Alamitos, California.) Coquitos are only the size of a large marble and look like smooth-skinned brown coconuts. You can eat the whole thing for a really luxurious snack or toss them into salads, pastas, or fruit dishes.

If you have the time, you can start with fresh coconut: roast it whole, shell it, grate the meat, and then roast it again if you want dried coconut pulp to create coconut milk or to use in cooked dishes.

Fresh coconut is worth the work, as its flavor is more milky and texture more creamy than the processed type. To get to the good stuff, pierce the eyes of the coconut with a pointed instrument (we have found that a sanitized Phillips head screwdriver works well) and drain off the juice (save this as a reward for later or use to replace all or some of the cooking liquid for vegetables, grains, rice, or puddings). Break the husk with a hammer to get to the pulp. If your coconut is particularly hard, you can heat the drained coconut in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes and then crack it. Scrape out the pulp, which can be eaten as is, added to salads, curries or rice, or baked with sweetener and cinnamon for a fast snack ingredient (you can use the baked pulp in cookies, muffins, puddings, and on cereals).

If purchasing coconut milk, choose the thick variety — you can always thin it. When you open the can, there may be a layer of coconut cream — just shake or stir to incorporate, or skim to remove some of the calories. Coconut milk is perishable, so refrigerate it and use it within 3 days. If purchasing grated coconut, select the unsweetened variety — you can sweeten it to your taste or use it, as is, in savory dishes, such as a lentil pilaf, brown rice, onion, and coconut casserole or a tofu-tomato curry.

Allergy alert: Most canned coconut is preserved with potassium metabisulfite (a sulfite, like the substance used in dried fruit). Some people are allergic to sulfite. The only other ingredients should be coconut and water.

Quick tip: Canned coconut milk heated with a few Tablespoons of Thai or Indian curry paste makes a "hot" soup, or simmered with veggies and served over rice makes a fast entrée.


(Serves 10)

Callaloo, a Caribbean stew of spinach and okra cooked in coconut milk, is traditionally made with meat and seafood. We enjoyed this veggie version at the home of a traditional-but-vegetarian Caribbean friend. Be careful — callaloo is meant to be hot!! It's hard to make callaloo in small quantities, so cook up a batch and freeze half.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 1 Scotch bonnet or habañero chili
  • 1/2 cup chopped onions
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 pounds fresh spinach, washed and shredded
  • One 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
  • 6 cups peeled and chopped winter squash (Hubbard, Kabocha, butternut, etc.)
  • 1 pound fresh or frozen, thawed okra, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 4 green onions, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper

Heat a large soup pot and spray with oil. Cut a small slit in the chili and sauté it with the onions and garlic for about 12 minutes, until soft.

Add the spinach, coconut milk, squash, okra, thyme, green onions, cilantro, and water. Bring to a boil with high heat. Reduce heat and allow to simmer, covered, until all ingredients are tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove from heat and add pepper. Some people purée the whole mixture, serving it with a sauce-like texture, and some people leave it as is. If you don't want a lot of "heat," remove the chili before puréeing, or before serving if you don't plan on puréeing the mixture.

Total calories per serving: 142 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 13 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 86 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Good source of iron

Caribbean Rice and Peas

(Serves 10)

Here's a dish to serve with the callaloo. The traditional recipe calls for pigeon peas, which can be found in Latino stores or supermarket aisles. If pigeon peas are not available, use black-eyed peas.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 1/2 cup chopped onions
  • 1 Tablespoon dried thyme
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • One 15-ounce can pigeon peas, drained
  • 1 cup peeled and diced winter squash
  • 3 cups long-grain rice
  • 4 cups hot water
  • One 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk

Heat a large skillet and spray with oil. Sauté onions, thyme, cilantro, garlic, and green onions until soft, about 10 minutes.

Add the peas and squash. Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes or until squash is tender.

Add rice, water, and coconut milk and stir to combine. Cover tightly and simmer, over low heat, for 20 minutes or until rice is cooked. Fluff with a fork before serving.

Total calories per serving: 347 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 55 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 117 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Good source of iron

Coconut Rice

(Serves 4)

This is terrific served with a Thai stir-fry.

  • 2 cans (28 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1-1/2 cups Jasmine rice

In a medium saucepan, combine milk and rice. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally so rice does not stick.

Uncover and continue to cook over low heat, stirring, until rice is creamy and tender, about 15 minutes. If more liquid is required, water can be added (no more than 1/2-cup at a time).

Note: To make coconut rice pudding, reduce rice to 1 cup and add ¾ cup of vegan granulated sweetener. Cook as indicated above, letting the mixture get very creamy (this is not a custard-firm pudding). Serve warm or chilled, topped with shredded coconut and cinnamon.

Total calories per serving: 644 Fat: 42 grams
Carbohydrates: 63 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 26 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Good source of iron

Baked Pears with Coconut Filling

(Serves 4)

  • 2 large pears (Anjou, Bosc, Comice, etc.) peeled, cored, and halved
  • 1/2 cup shredded coconut
  • 2 Tablespoons date sugar (or other vegan granulated sweetener)
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a baking dish, place pears cut side up. In a small bowl, combine coconut, sugar, and spices, and mix well.

Place 2 Tablespoons of coconut mixture in each pear half. Bake for 30 minutes or until tender.

Total calories per serving: 87 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 15 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 2 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Coconut Curry

(Serves 4)

  • 2 Tablespoons oil
  • 1-1/2 cups sliced onions
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • One 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 cup drained and chopped canned tomatoes
  • Cooked rice or noodles, for serving
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh basil, for garnish

Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onions and sauté until soft and falling apart, about 10 minutes. Stir in curry powder, and cook for one more minute.

Add coconut milk and cook, stirring until mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook for one more minute.

Serve over rice or noodles, garnished with fresh herbs, such as basil or mint.

Total calories per serving: 283 Fat: 28 grams
Carbohydrates: 9 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 48 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Good source of iron

Coconut Noodles

(Serves 4)

  • 12 ounces rice noodles or linguini
  • 3 Tablespoons oil
  • 1 cup chopped bell peppers
  • 2 cups peeled and chopped eggplant
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • One 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 Tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

Soak rice noodles in enough cold water to cover them. If using linguini, cook al dente according to package directions and allow to cool.

Heat a large skillet or a wok. Add oil, and allow to heat. Add peppers and eggplant and cook, stirring, until vegetables are browned and tender, about 10 minutes.

Add the garlic and coconut milk, stirring for one minute. Add the noodles and cook until noodles have absorbed most of the milk, about 5 minutes.

Season with soy sauce, remove from heat, add cilantro, and serve.

Total calories per serving: 615 Fat: 32 grams
Carbohydrates: 78 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 26 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Good source of iron

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG's Food Service Advisor and the author of, most recently, Vegan Meals for One or Two.