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Published: June 10th 2017
Geo: 13.7308, 100.521
Before living in Southeast Asia, I never knew how much I loved coconuts. The old, hard, hairy, brown wooden bowling ball-type coconuts my father brought home for us never got me addicted; in my experience they were a difficult food. First, my father would get a hammer and nail, and bash the nail into one of the indentations at the top of the coconut, and then my mother would try to catch whatever little water came out, and split that five ways (there were five of us children) so we could all taste it. Then my dad would hammer some more, trying to break the coconut into pieces, and then my mother would try to pry the meat off the shell; finally we would eat a piece or two, but it was hard to chew and didn't taste like much. The difficulty of opening such a food, the noise, its hardness, its lack of taste, all combined to make me feel that coconuts weren't really worth all the effort involved.
I know now that those coconuts were very old. The younger a coconut is, the more water there will be inside and less "meat." What is inside the shell will be soft and delicious, and be able to be easily scooped out with a spoon. As coconuts age, there is less water inside and more, harder "meat," which continues to get harder and harder and more dense until there is no coconut water left inside. These rock-hard coconuts are what was available in Pittsburgh, PA when I was a child, nothing like what I eat in SE Asia!
The first fresh, young green coconuts I found were in Bangkok. Most places they cost 15 to 20 baht, about 45 to 60 cents each. I bought a little stainless steel spoon, ubiquitous throughout SE Asia, to scoop out the inside. Coconut water is very refreshing and delicious; in a large coconut there might be two full cups of clear water, probably the best fluid in the world to drink for rehydration. And then, after drinking this wonderful nectar, you can eat the soft, jelly-like meat with a spoon. This is so filling it becomes a full, mono-meal.
Buying my food at markets in Thailand quickly became a daily occurrence; actually I would go several times each day. After visiting the same vendor two or three times in a row, they would offer a discount. In Patthum Thani, where I lived for a month, the two vendors I bought from kept lowering their prices; a coconut war, of sorts. The cost went from 15 baht to 10, then to 8, and finally both stabilized their price at 7 baht, a little over 20 cents for each heavenly coconut. At that price, some days I bought two, one from each vendor.
There is an art to opening and eating a coconut, whatever its age. In Thailand, VietNam, and Cambodia, all the coconut vendors hold them in one hand while making several chops typically in a pentagonal pattern with a large, very sharp machete-type knife. It was difficult for me to watch this at first, because I thought for sure they would cut off their hands! But so far their aims are true, and the only thing that gets cut is the coconut.
In Thailand and VietNam, the sellers do not cut the tops of coconuts all the way off; they leave a hinge, and stick in a straw. Instant beverage! Then they close the top, and carefully put the whole thing in a small plastic bag for ease of carrying to wherever you want to drink it. In Cambodia, in Phnom Penh's Central Market, the vendors cut a little bit of the whole top off, and drain the water into another plastic bag, and stick a straw into that; then they cut the rest of the coconut into pieces, so you get two bags, one of water and one of coconut pieces. Here they will also frequently put in a slice of the shell to use as a scooping spoon. It works great, especially if you forgot to bring your spoon with you that day.
Here, then, is the perfect recipe for coconuts, if you find yourself living in SE Asia: locate a vendor with fresh looking young green coconuts and pick the one you want. Shake it to make sure it is full of water, and then indicate where you want it cut. You can also mime drinking it through a straw. Take the coconut bag(s) and pay, then drink as you walk along, avoiding being run over by all the speeding motos, tuk-tuks, cars, and buses that try to run you over as you walk along. (This is in VietNam and Cambodia, although Thailand too has its pedestrian target spots.) Finally, once you are in a quiet place and have drunk all the good water and are feeling completely wonderful, happy, and sated, take your spoon or shell shard and scoop out the white "meat" inside the shell. Don't miss any! When you are finished you can happily relax, view the world with a coconut high's rose-colored glasses, and look forward to your next coconut experience.
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