Hugh C Harries. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Milk Bottle on the Doorstep of Mankind
In prehistoric times, the water content of the immature coconut fruit was more important as a drink than was any part of the mature nut as a food. In recent history, the emphasis has also been on a nonfood use of coconuts as oil. The oil extracted from the kernel of the ripe coconut is an industrial raw material for products ranging from soap to explosives. From prehistory to the present, coconut has served many human communities around the tropics in a variety of ways. In 1501, King Manuel of Portugal itemized some of its uses at a time when the coconut was first becoming known in Europe:”[F]rom these trees and their fruit are made the following things: sugar, honey, oil, wine, vinegar, charcoal and cordage … and matting and it serves them for everything they need. And the aforesaid fruit, in addition to what is thus made of it, is their chief food, particularly at sea” (Harries 1978: 277).
Unfortunately, it is not possible to provide as much information as one might want on the coconut in prehistory. This is because heat and humidity work against the preservation of fossils, and thus there is a dearth of archaeological materials, coprolites, and biological remains on tropical seashores where the coconut palm is native. Coconut residues do not accumulate because the palm grows and fruits the year round. This makes crop storage unnecessary and, in fact, because of their high water content, coconut seednuts cannot be stored; they either grow or rot. And the tender, or jelly, coconut is even less likely to survive in storage.
The sweet liquid in the immature fruit, however, is safe to drink where ground water may be saline or contaminated. It is a very pleasant drink, and coconuts are readily transported by land or sea. In short, coconut is potable, palatable, and portable! Unlike drinks that are bottled, canned, or otherwise packaged, coconuts are sustainable and recyclable. It has been suggested that as the “milk bottle on the door step of mankind” (Harries 1981), the coconut could have played a significant role in the diets of our human ancestors in the time before agriculture.
Leafy Vegetables, Fruits, and Nuts
Although not strictly a green leafy vegetable, coconut heart of palm can be compared with blanched leafy vegetables, such as endive, or celery, or globe artichoke. It has been called “millionaire’s salad” on the assumption that only the very rich can afford to fell an entire palm and have the leaf stalks cut away to expose the large bud, which is the part that is eaten. Palm hearts are best eaten fresh, but they can be cooked, canned, or pickled (Harries 1993).
Other palms can also be employed in this manner; indeed, with some palm species, harvesting heart of palm is a commercial operation. Certainly palm heart production could easily be commercialized for the coconut palm, especially in tropical coastal areas where tourism has replaced indigenous agriculture. One coconut heart may account for 40 side salads, and over-aged palms, overgrown seedlings from coconut nurseries, and those sprouting like weeds in neglected groves could be used for this purpose. It would even be practical to plant them at high density for sequential harvesting.
Farmers, however, are reluctant to cut down coconut palms, even when these are over-aged. They do not thin out palm stands that are too dense to be productive, and they usually ignore overgrown seedlings. All this may be attributable to a past in which the coconut palm was potentially the sole surviving food plant after a tidal wave or hurricane. Thus, the notion persists among some that to cut down a coconut palm threatens future life support. Moreover, in some communities, coconuts are planted to celebrate a birth, and if the palm dies or is felled, the human life it was planted to commemorate may be jeopardized. A recent example of the extreme reluctance to cut down the trees occurred during Liberia’s civil war, when coconut palm hearts were eaten by the starving population only as a last resort.
Apple for the Teacher
Botanically, the coconut fruit is a drupe. Plums, peaches, and cherries, which are also drupes, have edible outer parts to encourage dissemination by animals. Other palms as well, particularly the date, have soft, sweet, and edible fruit, but the coconut is different because the outer covering, the husk, is generally bitter and stringy when young and dry and fibrous when mature. However, some rare individual coconut palms have an edible husk that is less fibrous, spongier, easily cut, and sweet to chew like sugar cane (Harries 1993).
The coconut “apple” is, botanically, the haustorium of the germinating seed. The haustorium begins to develop at the earliest stage of germination, even before the shoot or roots emerge through the husk. Coconuts harvested in this condition are suitable for domestic purposes or for second-grade copra, but generally not for desiccated coconut. Often the apple is put aside to eat. It is slightly sweet, and slightly oily, with a cottony texture. As the endosperm lasts up to 15 months during germination, a large apple is found in well-developed seedlings. In places where coconuts grow, children walking to school may grasp the leaves of a sprouted seednut and uproot it. Still holding it by the leaves, they swing it against the trunk of the nearest mature palm to split the husk and crack open the shell. Then they pick out and eat the apple (Harries 1993).
An unusual form of the mature coconut has a jelly-like endosperm. This can be eaten fresh, scooped with a spoon from the shell of the freshly cracked coconut. It is called makapuno in the Philippines, where it is highly esteemed, and dikiripol or similar names in India and Sri Lanka. It is known in other coconut-growing countries, such as Indonesia, and has been reported in the Solomon Islands. The most interesting fact about it is that the embryo is normal but can only be germinated under the artificial conditions of a tissue culture laboratory.
A coconut with aromatic endosperm, favored in Thailand for drinking and preparing a cooked dessert, is also known in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Lovely Bunch of Coconuts
The coconut has at times been treated as something of a joke by Europeans, and it was popularized in the music hall song, “I’ve got a luverly bunch of coconuts.” Historically, it was first introduced to Europe as Nux indica, or the nut from the Indies. This was possibly a generic name applied to the shells of all other palms that survived the long overland journey; and it may have referred to nutmegs as well (Ridley 1912). Such nuts and shells were kept as novelties, and even ornamented (Fritz 1983).
Friar John of Montecorvino (around 1292) described Nux indica as “big as melons, and in colour green, like gourds. Their leaves and branches are like those of the date palm” (quoted in Desmond 1992: 9). But it was not until after the Portuguese sailed to the Indian Ocean in 1499, and brought back fresh samples, that the coconut was distinguished from other palm fruits and from the nutmeg (although people in the countries where these plants grow cannot imagine that such a confusion could exist).
After the fibrous husk is removed, the brown, hard-shelled nut can be split to expose the kernel. Unlike an almond, for example, which also has a fibrous outer covering, a shell, and a kernel, the coconut is generally not used as a nut because of its large size, although health food and vegetarian shops often include slices of coconut kernel in packets of mixed nuts. In England, coconuts sold in greengrocers’ shops (without husks) are usually split open and hung outside for birds to feed on, especially in winter.
Oils, Fats, and Food
Fish and Chips
Coconut oil is most certainly a part of the diet in the countries where it grows. But equally importantly in those countries, it may be an unguent for the hair, an emollient for the body, a rust inhibitor for iron, and a fuel for lamps. Its first industrial use in Europe was as a lubricant in textile mills, although it subsequently became important to soap makers. Some of the latter are among today’s industrial giants, and they still import coconut oil for the excellent lathering properties it imparts. It is interesting to note, however, that when soap manufacturers began using coconut oil, they unintentionally fostered the fish and chip shop.
This famous institution, the forerunner of all fast-food takeaways, became part of the social fabric in Britain (Harries 1988). Fish and chips date from the middle of the nineteenth century. Before then, local “soap-boilers” accumulated animal fat as the major ingredient of laundry soap. But animal fat was chiefly available in the winter months, when animals were slaughtered if they could not be fed, whereas coconut oil was available year-round from overseas colonial possessions that had an abundance both of the crop and of cheap labor.
Whether for soap or for cooking, coconut oil was particularly acceptable because it was convenient to handle. In a cool climate it does not even look like oil; below 20° to 26° C it becomes a greasy, somewhat crystalline, white or yellowish solid fat. In other words, outside the tropics, coconut oil becomes solid and resembles animal fat. It was also a good substitute for animal fat because there was no risk from infectious disease in its production.
The virtues of coconut oil were extolled at the beginning of the twentieth century in an advertisement for “Nut Lard” as:
an absolutely pure vegetable fat, extracted from the coco-nut. It is sweeter than ordinary lard or butter, and cheaper than either. It is white, odourless, does not turn rancid and is infinitely superior to ordinary lard for all culinary purposes. It can be used with the most delicate dishes without altering the natural flavour of the dish.
This advertisement went on to state that “‘Nut Lard’ contains neither salt nor water … [and] [i]n cold weather, ‘Nut Lard’ may become hard—it should then be shredded before using….” The most telling part of the advertisement was that “‘Nut Lard’ is unequalled for frying fish, it does not splutter, there is no smell, and it can afterwards be strained and kept for future use” (Anon. 1912: 41-2).
It was in the nineteenth century that such flamboyant advertising became a significant factor in marketing. In particular, industrial soap makers started large-scale advertising of their products, with the prepackaged brand names that still survive today. Such competition put the small, local soap boilers out of business, and when they could no longer sell soap, they looked for something else to do with their existing equipment—deep copper pans over open fires. The coconut oil they had previously used for soap was now put to work frying fish and chips.
In coconut-growing countries, coconut oil is prepared in the home by heating coconut milk until a clear oil separates. Commercially, the extraction of oil from copra (dried or smoked coconut meat) is one of the oldest seed-crushing industries in the world. Extraction methods range from simple techniques employed in villages to modern high-pressure expellers and prepress or solvent extraction plants that can process more than 500 tons of copra a day. In Indonesia, some processors cook chopped fresh kernel in previously extracted coconut oil before pressing. Various methods have been developed for “wet” processing of edible grade oil and flour from fresh meat, but none are yet commercially viable (Harries 1993).
Coconut oil is the most important of the small group of commercial fats that contain a high proportion of glycerides of lower fatty acids. The chief fatty acids are lauric (45 percent), myristic (18 percent), palmitic (9 percent), oleic (8 percent), caprylic (7 percent), capric (7 percent), and stearic (5 percent). There is also a minute amount of tocopherol (vitamin E). The natural volatile flavor components of fresh meat and oil are mostly delta-lactones. Lauric oils are characterized by high saponification value and have the lowest iodine value of vegetable oils in common industrial use. Coconut oil, as it is ordinarily prepared in tropical countries, ranges from colorless to pale brownish yellow in hue. In temperate climates, or air conditioning, it appears as a greasy, somewhat white or yellowish, solid fat that has a melting point between 20° and 26° C. Until refined, it has a pronounced odor of coconut. Coconut oil is refined, bleached, and deodorized using standard vegetable oil-processing technology. If coconut oil is cooled until crystallization, part of the oil produces a semi-solid mass, which is then separated under hydraulic pressure.
The solid fraction, coconut stearine, is a harder fat with a higher melting point. It is used as a valuable confectionery fat and as a substitute for cocoa butter because of its brittleness and “snap” fracture. The liquid fraction, coconut oleine, has a correspondingly lower melting point and is used in margarine manufacture. Hydrogenation converts its unsaturated glycerides into stearic glycerides. The resulting product has a melting point higher than coconut stearine and is used as a brittle confectionery fat, which resembles cocoa butter. When refined and deodorized, coconut oil mixed with nonfat milk is often used as a replacement for whole milk. Other uses include the making of imitation dairy products, coffee whiteners, soft-serve desserts, frozen desserts, whipped toppings, milk shake mixes, and chocolate-filled milk.
Coconut oil is used because of its bland flavor, resistance to oxidation, and stability in storage, as well as a unique liquefying property that contributes to the “mouth-feel” of the food of which it is a component. The main nonedible uses are in soaps, detergent foam boosters, lubricating oil additives, mineral flotation agents, shampoo products, and corrosion inhibitors. Lauric oils enhance the lathering quality of soaps, and this quality makes coconut oil particularly useful for hard water or marine soaps. A feature of soapmaking with coconut oil is the higher yield of glycerol (14 percent compared with 10 percent for most oils). Other nonedible uses include illuminating or fuel oil in rural areas and in ceremonial lamps. Coconut stearine is also used to advantage in candle manufacture. Coconut oil will directly fuel unmodified diesel engines.
When the industrial demand for coconut oil developed in the nineteenth century, sailing schooners, and later tramp steamers, visited Pacific islands where the palm was plentiful. Fresh coconuts are a bulky and perishable cargo because of the husk and high water content. The fruit is made up of about 50 percent husk, 12 percent shell, 10 percent water, and only about 28 percent meat (kernel). The fresh coconut meat itself contains about 47 percent moisture. Thus, it was more convenient to ship copra, which the islanders could prepare in advance by drying the kernels, either in the sun or, if needed quickly, over a fire.
Commercial copra plantations today still use sun drying, direct firing over a barbecue, or indirect hot air in various sorts of kiln. The moisture content is reduced from between 45 and 50 percent to between 6 and 8 percent, and the oil content increases from 35 percent to between 60 and 65 percent. For safe storage, the moisture content of copra should be 6 percent, yet at the first point of sale it often has a much higher level. It dries further during storage, but molds may attack under such conditions. One of these is Aspergillus flavus, which produces aflatoxin. The possible presence of this carcinogen should serve as a stimulus for industry to improve copra quality or to bypass making it and process the fresh fruit instead (Harries 1993).
Edible (Ball) Copra
Copra may also form naturally inside the whole ripe nut. As early as the middle of the sixth century, Cosmas Indicopleutes said of the coconut:”If the fruit is gathered ripe and kept, then the water gradually turns solid on the shell, while the water left in the middle remains fluid, until of it also there is nothing left over” (Desmond 1992: 7). Copra formation occurs when nuts are kept in dry environments, and with those varieties that do not germinate quickly. The endosperm (kernel) eventually comes away from the shell and forms a ball of copra that rattles loosely inside the nut.The husk can remain intact so that the shell will not crack, and the whole copra-formation process requires some 8 to 12 months. Fires may be lit to help the drying. The heat and smoke do not contaminate the endosperm, which retains a very high quality (Harries 1993).
Copra Cake and Copra Meal
After the oil is extracted from copra, a good-quality residual cake will contain 6 to 8 percent oil, with a protein content of around 20 percent. Copra meal, the solvent-extracted residue, is 1 to 3 percent oil, depending on the efficiency of the plant. Cattle and poultry feeds incorporate both cake and meal; this combination results in firmer butter and harder body fat in cattle than that induced by other oil cakes. Cake with a high oil content is generally fed to pigs, but a deficiency in certain amino acids, notably tryptophan, lysine, methionine, and histidine, limits the amounts used in animal feeds. If aflatoxin is present in poorly prepared copra, it can pass into the cake or meal (Harries 1993).
Coconut flour suitable for human consumption is produced when oil is extracted from fresh coconut kernels rather than from copra. The flour is used in making bread and other foods. But, as just noted, it is not superior to other protein sources in the proportions of the various amino acids (Harries 1993).
Sugar and Honey
The coconut palm is also a fine source of nectar. It begins to flower 3 to 5 years after planting, depending on growing conditions, and once started, it opens a new inflorescence regularly at 25- to 30-day intervals throughout the year. The palm goes on flowering for the remainder of its 80-year or longer life span. Every inflorescence includes hundreds of male flowers that open sequentially over a 3-week period, and each contains a drop of nectar when first open, which attracts honey bees and bumblebees in the early morning. Each inflorescence also carries female flowers, sometimes more than a hundred. For about a week each month, female flowers are receptive to pollination for a day or two and produce an almost continuous flow of nectar droplets from three exposed and easily accessible nectaries. The flowers are also visited by birds (honeyeaters), and even by lizards.
The activity of insects draws attention to the nectar, whose sweetness is readily sampled by touching with a finger (easily reached in young palms). These may have been the clues that encouraged early domesticators and cultivators to find a way of increasing the flow of nectar. This method is known as tapping, and it produces toddy, as described in detail in the section “Water into Wine.”
Sweet toddy, boiled in shallow pans to its crystallization point, gives a 12 to 15 percent yield of jaggery. This rough sugar is hard, semicrystalline, and golden brown in color. A lesser degree of concentration gives treacle (or syrup) (Harries 1993). Beehives are often kept in coconut groves to enhance fruit set. The year-round flowering in a coconut plantation assures a perpetual supply of nectar, and the hives can also serve as sources of pollen.
The characteristic taste of coconuts (when mature) and, to a certain extent, their texture (when grated and dried, or desiccated), are among their most important features for spicing and flavoring. In the United Kingdom, television advertisements for a chocolate-covered, coconut-filled confection give an entertaining, but faulty, impression that the coconut falls from the palm already peeled and neatly split in half. In reality, the manual labor involved in making desiccated coconut, including harvesting, peeling, cracking, deshelling, and shredding, is far from amusing and not necessarily rewarding. Australians like their favorite cake covered with desiccated coconut, which makes Australia a large importer of this product. Yet, farmers on neighboring Pacific islands, who cannot grow much else than coconuts, neglect the crop because of low world market prices for their product.
Desiccated coconut was first manufactured in the early 1880s. It is an important product, sensitive to changes in production costs, and easily susceptible to overproduction. Nuts are stored for three or four weeks before being dehusked in the field and carried to the factory. When the shell is chipped off, the kernel comes away easily. Damaged or germinated nuts are rejected to make low-grade copra. The brown testa is removed, usually by hand, though machines are available. The kernels are then washed and sterilized to avoid the risk of salmonella. After sterilization, disintegrators reduce them to a wet meal, or cutters produce fancy cuts, such as threads or chips. Drying is by indirect drier at 75-80° C, or by direct firing at 120° C. The dried product is cooled and graded before being packed. Parings, oil, and drain oil are byproducts.
Desiccated coconut should be pure white, crisp, and have a fresh taste. It should have less than 2.5 percent moisture, 68 to 72 percent oil (on dry weight), less than 0.1 percent free fatty acid (as lauric), and about 6 percent protein. If there is more than 6 to 7 percent sucrose, then sugar has been added. Unavailable carbohydrate is about 18 percent and crude fiber about 4 percent, and there is some mineral content. Desiccated coconut is widely used in sweets, biscuits, cakes, and cake fillings (Harries 1993).
Coconut—Milk, Water, and Wine
The “Cocoa’s Milky Bowl”
Dr. Samuel Johnson”s Dictionary of 1755 contained run-together articles on coco (the nut) and cocoa (the source of chocolate). As a result, spelling became confused, and for some time the word coconut was misspelled as “cocoa-nut.”Thus, the poetic allusion to the “cocoa’s milky bowl” refers to the “coconut,” Cocos nucifera, and not to cocoa, Theobroma cacao (Child 1974). Yet even explaining this commits a further solecism, because coconut “milk” is a manufactured product. Unfortunately the distinction between coconut milk and coconut water is not always kept clear, even in research publications by coconut scientists. Coconut milk is prepared by squeezing freshly grated endosperm, usually with a little added water, through cloth. On storing, coconut cream forms an upper layer, and when either emulsion is heated, a clear oil separates. This is the basis of the time-honored village method of oil extraction. But coconut cream is also produced industrially in both liquid and spray-dried forms, and the national cuisines of coconut-growing countries use it extensively (Harries 1993).
Water into Wine
Both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages that are products of the coconut palm depend on the technique known as toddy tapping. As with other fruit juices, the watery sap that is the toddy can be converted to wine and other products by fermentation and distillation (the sugar content of coconut water from the immature nut also allows it to be fermented, but this is not common). Many types of palms are tapped in Southeast Asia, and the practice dates from at least the seventh century (Burkill 1935).
Unlike maple or rubber trees, which are dicotyledons where the layer of cambium below the bark is tapped, palms are monocotyledons, and the vascular strands are scattered through the tissue. Casual observers sometimes think that it is the coconut leaf stalks that are tapped. In reality, tapping uses the unopened flowering inflorescence. This is a large structure which, when cut in the tapping process and seen from ground level, could, indeed, be mistaken for the cut leaf stalk. There are many flowering stalks within an inflorescence, each able to exude sap. They are packed tightly into an enveloping spathe that would normally split to allow pollination. Binding the spathe tightly prevents it from splitting naturally. It may also be lightly beaten and flexed to stimulate sap flow. Once ready, the end is cut off to allow the sap to drip into a receptacle. The toddy tapper visits the palm, morning and evening, to decant the accumulated sap from the container before fermentation gets too active. Sap flow continues for many days, and each day a sliver is removed to reopen blocked vascular elements and increase flow. This continues until only a stump remains, and the next inflorescence in sequence is prepared.
Obviously, tapped bunches do not flower normally, and the palm ceases to set fruit. If the sap flow decreases, the palm is allowed to rest. The palm may respond with particularly high yields of fruit on the next normal bunches. Excessive tapping followed by high fruit set could shorten the life of the palm. However, the financial return to the farmer would more than compensate for this shorter life (Harries 1993).
Toddy is initially sweet and watery, and the containers used to collect it are rinsed but not sterilized between uses. Because the weather is warm where coconuts grow, and collection is slow because the palms have to be climbed, fermentation to alcohol is practically unavoidable.
Toddy produced overnight and collected first thing in the morning contains about 3 percent alcohol and 10 percent fermentable sugar. Certain additives may slow or stop fermentation. Otherwise, fermentation continuing for 33 hours produces palm wine with an 8 percent alcohol content. Sweet, unfermented toddy contains 16 to 30 milligrams of ascorbic acid per 100 grams, and the content changes little during fermentation. The yeast in fermented toddy adds vitamin B (Harries 1993).
Arrack is the product of the distilling of fermented toddy. Doubly distilled arrack is the basis of local gins, rums, and so forth, with the addition of appropriate flavors.
As with other wine-making substances, coconut toddy can also become vinegar. Fermenting toddy with free access to air produces 45 percent acetic acid in 10 to 14 weeks. This is matured in closed casks for up to 6 months and, perhaps, flavored with spices and colored with caramel.
The entertainer Harry Belafonte may not have been completely accurate when he sang that coconut water was “good for your daughter” and “full of iron,” or that it could “make you strong like a lion.” But he was praising the one thing about coconut that makes it different from all other plants—the large amount of water in the immature fruit.
Modern texts on coconut underrate the value of coconut water or overlook the part it played in the domestication of the coconut. Earlier writers had no such reservations. In 1510, Ludovici de Varthema wrote that “[w]hen the nut begins to grow, water begins to be produced within; and when the nut has arrived at perfection, it is full of water, so that there are some nuts which will contain four and five goblets of water, which water is a most excellent thing to drink …” (cited in Harries 1978). As mentioned, coconut water is often wrongly called milk. As early as 1583, by which time the coconut had become well known, Father Thomas Stevens praised the ubiquitous coconut and its refreshing milk [sic], saying “this is so abundant that after drinking the contents of one nut, you scarcely feel the need of another” (Desmond 1992: 29).
The immature fruit, used for drinking, will not fall naturally but must be cut from the palm. Bunches are selected just as they reach maximum size, when a jellylike endosperm begins to line the cavity of the still thin and soft shell. At this stage each nut is full size, full of water with no airspace (it does not splash when shaken), and very heavy. Usually, the harvester cuts one or two entire bunches of nuts and lowers them to the ground on a rope. If they fall, the weight of water cracks or even bursts the soft shell inside the soft husk, whereupon the water drains away and the fruit rots (Harries 1993).
The coconut that is freshly harvested from a bunch that has been in the sun has a natural effervescence and will hiss with released gas when opened. Nevertheless, nature”s “packaging” of this “product” leaves it at a disadvantage against internationally trademarked colas and mineral waters, because young coconuts deteriorate over a few days unless kept cool. Cutting away some of the husk reduces their size so they can be more efficiently kept in refrigerated storage, which extends “shelf life” considerably. There are instances when coconuts meant for drinking are transported hundreds of kilometers in refrigerated trucks, but this occurs only when such a vehicle would otherwise travel empty, where the roads are good, and where an affluent urban market has no other access to coconut. Moreover, the use of the coconut as a drink is marginalized by most conventional agricultural treatments. It is seen as reducing the crop of copra from which oil is extracted.
At the proper stage, coconut water contains about 5 percent sugar, and a large nut may have as much as 25 grams of sugar. The water also contains minerals, amino acids, and vitamin C. In addition to fermenting easily, yielding alcohol and vinegar, coconut water has auxinic and growth-promoting properties when used in plant tissue culture. Historically, various medicinal values were attributed to it. There is no doubt that it is a fine oral rehydration fluid for the severe diarrhea of cholera and other diseases. Because coconut water is naturally sterile, it may be injected intravenously to substitute for blood plasma in emergency surgery, and in combination with egg yolk, it finds use as a diluent in artificial insemination.
Coconut—The Tree of Life
Depending on variety, coconut fruit takes from 11 to 15 months to reach maturity, and the palm produces a new inflorescence every 3 to 4 weeks. This means that all the stages of fruit development, from youngest to oldest, are present on any palm at any given time of the year. In the fourteenth century, Jordanus of Séveras, who thought that the coconut was a “marvel,” wrote that “both flowers and fruit are produced at the same time, beginning with the first month and going up gradually to the twelfth,” so that there are flowers and fruit in eleven stages of growth to be seen together (quoted in Desmond 1992: 9). In this respect it meets the specifications of the biblical Tree of Life, “which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yieldeth her fruit every month” (Revelations 22:2).
According to Peter Martyr (d”Anghiera), writing about 1552,”[s]ome people believe that the germs of these trees were brought by the waves from unknown regions” (Harries 1978: 270). Four hundred years or so later it is now speculated that coconut may have originated on the coasts and islands of Gondwanaland, after which a wild form floated into the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but not the Atlantic. Domestication subsequently occurred in the Malaysian region (Southeast Asia and the western Pacific). The wild and domestic forms were both taken into cultivation, and introgressive hybridization between them produced the wide range of varieties recognized today (Harries 1990).
The original importance of the coconut palm was to coastal communities.With fish and shellfish to eat, coconut provided refreshing, sweet, and uncontaminated drinking water in an otherwise saline environment. No tools were needed to get it, and daily consumption of the water contained in one or two coconuts was enough to ensure good kidney function. The wild type of coconut spread without human interference, but domestication enhanced its drinking qualities in particular. The domestic type depends on human activity for survival and dissemination (Harries 1979).
The coconut preceded the Polynesians in those parts of the Pacific region to which it could float, and the Polynesians took domesticated forms to the islands that they settled (Lepofsky, Harries, and Kellum 1992). Before the development of the copra industry, coconut was a multipurpose plant on small Pacific islands, and its food potential was neither more nor less important than any other use. But another use was in interisland transportation. The islanders in the Indian and Pacific Oceans discovered that coconut husk fibers could be important in building and rigging sailing ships. Moreover, they took young fruit on board, at the start of a voyage, as self-contained, individual servings of uncontaminated drinking water.
The coconut palm was first grown as a plantation crop in the 1840s, because the industrial process for making soap, patented in 1841, required a cheap source of oil, which coconut oil from copra (the dried endosperm of the nut) could provide. And then, between 1846 and 1867, the development of dynamite from nitroglycerine had the remarkable effect of turning glycerine, a once discarded by-product of soap manufacture, into a more profitable item (Harries 1978).
Thus, for industrial and political empire builders, the coconut was a cheap source of raw material and also of war material. The “coconut cult” and “coconut boom” were features of the stock market in the early years of the twentieth century, and coconut plantations were established throughout the tropics.
The strategic importance of the coconut following World War I was clearly demonstrated when the German territories in Africa and the Pacific, with their extensive plantations, were taken away as reparation. As a result, the Japanese administered the Caroline, Mariana, and Marshall islands and, in 1942, they added other important coconut-growing countries to their collection. At the time, Indonesia and the Philippines by themselves accounted for more than 50 percent of the world supply of copra; Indochina, Malaya, Borneo, New Guinea, the Solomons, and the Gilbert Islands provided a further 25 percent.
With the end of the World War II, as nuclear weapons displaced high explosives, the military importance of the coconut gave way to other oil crops. Thus, because of their high palmitic acid content, palm oil and cottonseed oil were preferred over coconut oil for making the new “conventional” weapon, napalm. Similarly, in industry, coconut oil soap, excellent for lathering in hard or saline water, and coconut fiber (coir), valued for resilient, water-resistant rope, were ousted by petroleum-based detergents and synthetic fibers (Harries 1978).
Other animal life forms besides humans have also been associated with the coconut. Two are of cultural interest in relation to coconuts, as well as being foods in their own right: the coconut crab and the palm weevil. The coconut crab, or “robber crab” (Birgus latro), is a massive land-living crab that can climb coconut palm stems and is reputed to cut off nuts before returning to the ground to eat them. Its association with the coconut is not purely fortuitous. The coconut travels long distances over the Indian and Pacific Oceans by interisland floating and can easily carry the small postlarval stages of the crab. This would account for the equally widespread distribution of an otherwise terrestrial crab, which only spends about 30 days of its larval life in coastal waters. Charles Darwin observed that the coconut crab “grows to a monstrous size,” and “is very good to eat” (Harries 1983). Unfortunately, on many islands where it was once found, the crab has been eaten to extinction.
Palm weevils (Rhynchophorus spp. ) are a serious pest in coconut groves, killing palms directly by burrowing in the stem, and indirectly as a vector of the red ring nematode. The palm weevil grubs grow as large as a man’s thumb, and subsistence cultivators can collect hundreds of them from fallen or felled palm stems. When fried in their own fat and eaten, the larvae provide a protein- as well as an energy-rich diet.
Another insect activity related to the coconut is the gathering of pollen by honeybees, and today health-food shops sell coconut pollen. As with other pollens, it is collected by incorporating a trap in the hive entrance that removes the pollen pellets as the bees return from foraging. But it could also be collected directly from male flowers. Coconut breeders routinely harvest and process male flowers for kilogram quantities of pollen used in artificial pollination for F1 hybrid seed production (Harries 1973). Here again, the year-round flowering of the coconut means that regular supplies of pollen are easy to maintain.
When coconut oil was first available in Europe, it was advertised as healthy, whereas animal fats or dairy products were associated with communicable diseases. Now noncommunicable diseases, such as heart diseases and cancer, are of more concern. But the routine use of coconut oil for frying fish or for making margarine had been discontinued in Western societies (mainly as a matter of economic supply and demand) long before the diet conscious became wary of coconut oil, and it continues to be used directly in tropical diets and for vegetable ghee in India.
Coconut oil is easily digested and is absorbed into the system almost as rapidly as butterfat. This is attributed to the low molecular weight of the fatty acids. In common with other vegetable oils, coconut oil contains virtually no cholesterol, but there are objections to its food use because of the high saturation of its fatty acids. In the United States, “tropical oils” have come under attack from pressure groups, whose criticisms overlook the fact that most coconut oil is used for nonedible purposes, and that many of its food uses are to improve the quality of factory-prepared products. Only in coconut-growing countries, where it makes lower quality protein and carbohydrates more acceptable and more digestible, is the coconut still used extensively for cooking. In fact, it may turn out that naturally saturated medium-chain coconut oil is healthier than artificially hydrogenated short-chain vegetable oils.
Finally, what more can be said about the coconut than was said in the “Account of Priest Joseph,” circa 1505:”In conclusion, it is the most perfect tree that is found, to our knowledge” (cited in Harries 1978).