Monday, July 5, 2010

Pe'epe'e - Fresh coconut milk

By panipopos

Coconuts are a key ingredient to Samoan cooking. Every part of the coconut is used. You can eat the flesh raw or use it for cooking, you can drink the juice, the shell makes a handy ava cup or, together with the husks, you can fuel a cooking fire. The most widely used product from the coconut is coconut milk, so let me describe how we traditionally make the milk, how you can make this milk at home, and what you can substitute if, like me, there are no coconuts anywhere near where you live.

Traditional preparation
Once husked, the coconut is split in half. How do you split it? Well, my dad says that on one end of the coconut is a face made of two eyes and a nose (no mouth!). (There’s a story behind this face that stars an eel, but that’s for another blog post.) If you imagine a line going from between the eyes to the other end of the coconut, the midpoint of that line is the weakest point of the nut, and that is where you should deliver your first blow. So you use the blunt side of a machete to crack around the equator of the coconut and split it in half. You can drink or discard the juice, and eat or discard any spongy yellowish stuff inside the coconut. Now it’s time to grate the flesh while it’s still inside the shell.

For this, Samoans devised a coconut grating stool (mata tuai) that you can comfortably grate dozens of coconuts on, provided your arms hold out. The grated coconut, penu, is then strained through a tauaga, which is a bunch of fibrous strands from the laufao plant. The creamy liquid that is extracted is the coconut milk that is used for cooking.
Modern preparation
Some Samoans living outside the islands still make coconut milk this traditional way, but if they live in a less tropical climate, they’ll add some boiling water to the grated coconut to help extract the milk. If you don’t add boiling water, then the product will be more oily than creamy.

You can simulate the traditional Samoan preparation by buying a fresh coconut. Shake it around in the store – don’t drop it! – the more liquid you hear sloshing around in there, the better. Split it open with the blunt side of a cleaver or similar object, then cut or pry out pieces of the coconut flesh. Grate these with a box grater, using the coarsest grating surface, or shred the coconut with a food processor. One coconut should give you about 3 cups of grated coconut. Put this is a bowl and add 1½-2 cups of boiling water and let this steep for about 10 minutes. Then, using your hands or a muslin cloth, squeeze out as much milk as you can from the grated coconut, reserving the pulp for another use (eg. mix it into muffins or cake). The result is almost as good as the original, without the benefit of a full arm workout.

Say you can’t get coconuts at your local supermarket. Or say you can, but you don’t have the time to be grating and squeezing out the milk. Or say you have the time, but you’re just plain lazy. You can still enjoy Samoan food by using canned coconut milk, or the stuff that comes in cartons. Most Samoans outside the islands use these and you can find them in most supermarkets or Asian stores for a reasonable price. But beware. Not all mass-produced coconut milks are created equal.

As far as frozen, powdered or any other type of coconut milk goes, don’t bother with it. The nuances of flavour, not to mention cooking qualities, are completely lost in these forms of coconut milk. Plus, I don’t know any Samoan that uses them, so stick to the fresh stuff, or the canned/carton coconut milk.

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