In the Southern stretches of the Thai Southern Line, you will see many specimens of Arecaceae – the botanical family of perennial climbers we know as “palm trees” – and we think they’re fascinating.
They are about 2,600 species in the family. Almost all of the restricted to tropical climes. The one you are most likely to see is the Cocos genus. The coconut is actually not a nut, its a drupe, or stone fruit – which is the same thing that a peach is. A drupe is defined by a fruit in which an outer fleshy part surrounds a single shell of hardened endocarp with a seed inside. So you can think of a coconut as kind of like a peach but with a dry, fibrous, and inedible husk where the sweet flesh otherwise should be.
The coconut has been a staple in this region for millions of years, but its name speaks to the age when Europeans first came south to the tropics. In Portuguese folklore, coco or coca is a term for a ghost or witch. When the early Portuguese seafarers in the 16th century first came across coconut shells, they thought it resembled the head of a ghost. In Arabic however, its called “Jawz hindi”, meaning “Indian nut”, which is the same name – nux indica – collected by Marco Polo during his voyages in 1280 while in Sumatra, in modern day Indonesia. Given the distance, it is curious that the polynesian and melanesian words for it are almost identical to the Malay word – “nyiur”.
In good tropical soils like what we find around here, a coconut palm can grow from a single coconut and within 6 to 10 years can bare fruit, and within 15 to 20 years can yield up to 75 coconuts per year.
With that math, and given that the palms grow on beaches and the nuts (or rather fruit) floats, it is one of our most global trees. It is often stated that a cocount can travel for 110 days and still be able to germinate, and that favourable ocean currents can take a nut up to 3,000km in such a period of time. Yet, Captain Cook found no coconuts on the coast of Eastern Australia, Vasco de Gama found none on coastal Africa, and Columbus found none in Caribbean. So there is much academic debate about from where the coconut originates, and how it became so global.
Interestingly, the further inland you go in the tropics, the less the local coconut varieties float. It is thought that this is because people brought them inland, and they selected the coconuts with the thinner husk and the thicker meat.
Regardless, between 26 degrees north and 26 degrees south, the coconut is ubiquitous. You are now at around 13 degrees north. The determining factor for their success in the south of Thailand is the higher rainfall, humidity, and sunlight when compared with inland Thailand.
That is why coconut milk is an important feature of southern Thai cuisine. It is made when you grate the flesh of the coconut and squeeze out the juices. Generally, coconut cream is the first press – the extra virgin, if you will – and coconut milk is the later presses, perhaps with added water.