In Malaysia, Java and Bali, coconut comes second only to rice in its ubiquity and centrality to both sweet and savoury food. Even the goats—we came across this one near a beach in Terrangganu, eyeing up a coconut shake—seem to like it.
Young, green coconuts—often described as jelly coconuts—are simply sawed open, the watery, gently sweet liquid drunk through a straw. In the process of maturation, the flesh shifts from being gelatinous and quite bland to a meaty, sweet richness. The flesh can then be turned into milk (made by grating the flesh either on a board of nails or with a threshing-like machine, then pressing it, adding warm water and repeating) or oil (a more involved process which requires long, gentle cooking of the milk, then spooning off and refining the liquid fat which rises to the top), or simply grated, to be used as is, toasted or dry-fried.
I can’t say that the oil was particularly distinctive as a cooking fat, though the less processed oil (used in a particularly tasty meal served, of all places, at a “lifestyle cafe” in the Kuala Lumpur airport’s Low Cost Terminal), did have a certain clean sweetness . The milk, however, drew together all sorts of complex tastes and textures—as coconut rice (nasi lemak),anchoring and giving its name to a popular Malay breakfast spread of chicken curry, fried peanuts, crisp anchovy-like fish, hard-boiled egg, cucumber and a spicy, tomato-based sauce (sambal); in tempering the pungent sourness of curried fish soup (Nyonya laksa, also sometimes known as curry laksa or laksa lemak); and as a relatively neutral medium to float sweet noodles, crushed ice, syrups and gelatinous shapes in cendol and ice kacang.
Coconut also features prominently in desserts that more closely resembled their European counterparts. The best we came across were moreish tarts from Leong Chee Kee, a small bakery owned by the same family for two generations. Justifiably popular, the tarts’ double-crusted pastry are impossibly flaky, the coconut flavour intense, and the overall result not too sweet. Impressively tinged green with pandan leaf, but perhaps less exciting in the mouth, were the thin crepe-like pancakes sold across Bali, filled with a palm sugar caramel and fresh coconut flakes.
A new discovery in Indonesia was the abundant use of grated coconut, sometimes fresh, other times toasted, in cooked vegetable salads. These invariably contained long green beans, chilli, lime, sugar, often also spinach or water spinach and young, just-sprouted mung beans, and were sold under the name of urap sayur (coconut vegetables).
Back in London, I found a Madhur Jaffrey recipe for something named Gudangan which seemed a simpler approximation of what I had eaten. (Some versions also use a fresh spice paste.) Without the energy to bash open the fresh coconuts which are abundant at local Caribbean shops, I settled for rehydrating unsweetened, desiccated coconut. And though Jaffrey’s recipe also called for cauliflower and mung bean sprouts, I stuck to the green beans already in the fridge.
The result was, even without the banana leaf as serving plate, plastic stool and relentless heat, highly enjoyable. And with only six ingredients, it stands a better chance than other vacation favourites of making it onto our table on a regular basis.
Green bean salad with coconut and chili dressing
Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian
Serves 2 amply
Total time: 75 minutes; Active time: 15 minutes
I like this slightly warm or at room temperature, but it can also be prepared a bit in advance and chilled.
1 fresh red chili
1 garlic clove
2-3 tsp lime juice
Scant 4 tbsp unsweetened, desiccated coconut
1 tsp palm sugar (use dark brown sugar or jaggery if this is unavailable)
2 large handfuls of green beans (should be about 1 package or farmers’ market container)
Rehydrate coconut in a bowl with just over 3 tbsp hot water. It should take from 45 minutes to one hour to fully absorb the liquid and become soft.
While the coconut is rehydrating, chop the chilli finely (removing seeds if desired). Mince the garlic. Add both to a mixing bowl and squeeze over lime juice. Add palm sugar. (If it’s hard to get out of the container, try microwaving it for 5-10 seconds or using a spoon dipped in boiling water.) Mix to combine.
Cut beans into 1 ½ inch lengths. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and add beans. Cook until just tender—approximately 4 minutes. Drain in cold water to arrest cooking and leave to cool.
Add the coconut to the dressing and mix through. Add the beans and combine. Taste for balance, adding salt and pepper and adjusting the acidity and sweetness.