When Schwartz and McCormick asked for a favourite flavor story or memory on the foodies100 website, I instantly thought of the humble coconut. Never has a flavour evoked such strong memories and been so ever-changing throughout the stages of my life.
My journey with this exotic fruit started in my early childhood, when my Guyanese mother took my sister and I on a holiday to her native South American hometown. I’ll never forget this trip as we missed our connecting flight and were ‘stranded’ in Barbados for a couple of days. Back then flights to Guyana were very irregular, and I remember the airline quickly checking us into a hotel. We had mistakenly been booked onto a flight that would never have been able to connect and so everyone was very helpful. My mum was nervous and panicky because every moment walking the white sands of Barbados was time that we weren’t spending with her family, but as a wide-eyed eight year old I was happy gazing up at the palm trees in total awe. Our hotel was on the beach and I distinctly remember wishing that we could spend our whole holiday right there. The warm sunshine that wrapped its comforting arms around me, and the sing-song voices of locals offering us coconut shell jewellery and hair beads – it felt like paradise. These were the first two countries where I saw real coconuts – growing on the trees in Barbados and then being offered fresh coconut water in Guyana. The taste was nothing like I imagined – I was confused and unsure.
Previous to this I’d experienced coconut as the sweet, sickly flavour of what I called ‘pink and white icing’ and ‘bird’s nest’. These were the two cakes that my mum would buy as our afternoon treat on our way back from primary school. Every day we would stop at the tiny bakery at the foot of Kingston bridge, and she would ask me ‘what would you like today darling?’ My answer was always the same. I later came to realise that these two cakes were in fact named ‘Coconut Ice’ and ‘London Cheesecake’, although I have become rather fond of mine and my mum’s alternative names for each. If my dad was lucky we’d also buy him his favourite cake to enjoy when he got back from work – a large, flat coconut macaroon with a thin criss-crossed chocolate drizzle on top. What surprises me now is that I never realised that these were all coconut flavour.
My coconut road took me to Yugoslavia and Italy; both on family holidays and then just with my father after the divorce. He’d treat me to an ice cream after every meal, and I would savour every moment staring at all the colours and textures laid out before me. Despite the wide, adventurous choice of flavours to pick from, I would always go back to the silky, white flavour of paradise. I remember sucking the ice cream between my teeth until I found the small gritty pieces of coconut to chew on. It reminded me of the chocolate bars back home, which I would nibble and lick until the chocolate was gone and I was left with the ‘white icing’ – not too dissimilar to that from our bakery. My favourite was the coconut ice-cream served inside the coconut shell, which you sometimes find in Indian restaurants back home. The shell felt enormous between by small hands and my dad swore that I could never eat it all. I would peel back the plastic laid across the top and first eat the chocolate that sometimes sat in the middle. Always the same texture and always the flavour I loved, I would delight in proving him wrong.
As I entered adulthood, the sweetness of coconut became less appealing, and I became fascinated by the trees and countries where they grew. Given the chance, there would be an obligatory photo of a palm tree amongst other holiday snaps. Their majestic, pineapple-like texture and shape never failed to capture my imagination – a true symbol of the beauty that other cultures have to offer.
I chose to spend my thirtieth birthday touring around Thailand with my now husband, Mike. We again sampled fresh coconut water from coconuts picked by monkeys. They scurried up the trees effortlessly, and twisted the large, heavy fruits until the broke away from the tree allowing the monkey to drop them to the ground below.
In the sweltering, oppressive heat the coconut water tasted amazing. The plentiful liquid was thirst-quenching and invigorating, and gave us the energy to keep exploring temples and Buddha statues.
Later in the week and on our way to Chiang Mai, we stopped at a café where I tasted my first coconut milkshake – the only milk I drank the entire trip.
Our final week of the tour was spent in Koh Samui, where we did a cookery course and made Thai curry using coconut milk. This unassuming fruit was quickly becoming the flavour that reminded me of happy moments along my travels, as I began to realise the memories that its taste evoked. It was on this same holiday that I discovered coconut oil – shown here in old glass drink bottles. As I rubbed this luxurious oil on my skin, the smell took me right back to paradise and I could taste the sweet fruit all over again.
A few years later Mike and I returned to Asia for our wedding in Thailand and honeymoon in Bali. Once again we relished the chance to drink fresh coconut water, first in Thailand with all our friends and family who joined us for the wedding, and then in Bali – from a coconut that was picked by a local who fearlessly scurried up the tree for us!
Our favourite part of the honeymoon was a ‘food tour’ across wild and unspoilt jungle, where we felt truly connected to nature. I somehow felt at home amongst the palm trees and beautiful paddy fields, as if my base ought to be somewhere more exotic than Hampshire.
It seems that I will always have an affinity to the countries lying closer to the equator, even though I have never actually lived in any of them.
As my journey down the coconut road continues, my passion for the taste has changed as I’ve matured, and I hunger now for the savoury meals that its flavour enhances. I love using coconut cream or thick coconut yoghurt stirred into curry, and believe that nothing else comes close. It’s truly delicious!
My favourite recipe is a very simple slow-cooked Thai curry, that will waft delicately through your house as you return from work – providing a sophisticated meal that feels like it should have been harder to prepare than it is. This is also why it’s so special to me – because when depression makes me feel worthless and unable to prepare a decent dinner, this meal proves that cooking doesn’t have to be a nightmare.
Here’s what you’ll need:-
Ingredients (4 portions)
Half a bag of Waitrose Thai mix (frozen)
A tablespoon or so (each) of frozen shallots and garlic
One pack of chicken breasts – cut into smallish chunks
One tablespoon of fish sauce
One red pepper – chopped
400ml tin of coconut milk
Drizzle of cooking oil
Optional – thickening granules (or flour)
Fry the Thai mix, shallots and garlic in some cooking oil until they start to go brown – I used part toasted sesame seed oil and part olive oil. Add the chicken and pepper, then cook for a couple of minutes until the outside of the meat is ‘sealed’. Add the fish sauce and coconut milk and mix until everything is well coated. Finally, transfer to the slow cooker. Cook on low for roughly 9 hours, or as per your slow cooker instructions. Optional – if you prefer the sauce to be less runny, spoon 3 or 4 ladles of the liquid into a pan and bring to the boil. Add some thickening granules (or flour) and mix until it forms a sort of thick paste. Mix this back into the curry and serve with rice.
The finished product
As for my coconut road, perhaps I will return to the days of pink and white icing and non-cheesey cheesecake, or maybe the future holds an entirely new flavour story. One thing is for sure – I will never stop looking up at the sky in the hope to see a magnificent palm tree, reminding me of the wonderful and humble coconut.
If it were ever possible to find a coconut shell big enough, this is how you would find me…
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Or why not make a Pinterest board with pictures of your favourite flavour – Here are some more photos of my coconut road.
This post is an entry into the Foodies100/Schwartz Flavour of Together challenge.